Recent surveys have shown that:
- two thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during lockdown.
- young people are more likely to have experienced poor mental health during lockdown than adults.[i]
- more than 50% of teachers report that their mental health has suffered due to the pandemic.[ii]
The combined impact of these statistics is alarming. If the very people we rely on to support and guide our young people through adolescence – teachers – are themselves struggling to manage their own wellbeing, let alone that of their students, then the fallout could be huge. Identifying the core reasons for poor mental health must be a priority.
There are six basic psychological needs which we all have as human beings: 1. Love. 2. Being understood. 3. Belonging. 4. Achievement. 5. Autonomy. 6. Purpose. When any or all of these needs are not being met we feel low. Our mental health suffers. The first three have to do with our CONNECTION with others: the strength, depth and stability of those connections. These have been directly affected by Covid as family relationships have become strained and the restrictions on face-to-face meeting with friends and extended family are felt.
The second three psychological needs all have to do with HOPE: the strength of our belief that things will get better. These two things (connection and hope) are interrelated of course: when my relationships are meaningful and healthy, it is much easier to maintain an optimistic outlook on life and the future because I am exposed to other perspectives beyond just my own, and because I don’t feel alone in the world; lots may be going on around me but, as long as we can face it together, there is hope.
If I feel like I am repeatedly failing or falling short (achievement), if I feel like I have no power to change or improve my life (autonomy), if I feel like nothing I do actually matters (purpose), then I have no hope. And in that case what’s the point of living?
Mark Manson in his book ‘Everything is F*cked. A book about Hope” suggests that, “Hope is the fuel for our mental engine… without hope, your whole mental apparatus will stall out or starve…. We spiritually die….The opposite of happiness is not anger or sadness… No the opposite of happiness is hopelessness, an endless grey horizon of resignation and indifference.”
Right now, in our social media-driven world of sound bytes, the messages being presented and magnified are overwhelmingly messages which compound a sense of hopelessness. Things are getting worse not better. We are failing. The economy is double dipping, shrinking, freefalling. Our autonomy is more restricted then ever before so there is very little we feel we can constructively do to make things better. Deaths and covid cases are being reported in an ever more matter-of-fact way as humans are reduced to unfathomable numbers and 200+ deaths in a day is ‘good’ (relative to the day or week before)! The sense that every life matters is being eroded.
Young people are seeing, front and centre, the negative impact of Covid on their family relationships, on their friendships, on their parents’ livelihoods, on their freedoms, on their future exams, on their ability to access future opportunities, on the future job market, and on the credibility of our political system and those that govern. Coupled with the uncertainty still hanging over our heads regarding Brexit, along with the conflicting messages and fake news being pedalled on social media, there is a growing disengagement with any value or meaning beyond simply our own here and now.
There is a crisis of hope. And it is feeding a growing nihilism, a moral vacuum, the logical conclusion of which is that the only thing that ultimately matters is my own pleasure and avoidance of pain -hedonism – because if I can’t make any difference to anyone or anything then I might as well at least be comfortable. Brave New World, with its soma-induced artificial ‘happiness’, here we come!
“We all thought the lockdown would be over by now, and things would be getting back to normal. But it feels like the longer this lasts, the more hopeless everyone is getting. I’ve got nothing to look forward to, so what’s the point in keeping going?” Survey participant, young person (May 2020)[iii]
So what to do? If we as teachers feel hopeless (and with all that has gone on this year, on top of the ongoing frustrations of a broken education system, it is entirely understandable to feel “indifference and resignation”) it makes it incredibly difficult to be beacons of hope for our young people in a world that feels very dark. How do we inspire our students to have hope?
This might sound simple, maybe even trite, but a brighter future has to start with believing that better is possible. Fundamentally, Belief is a choice. I choose to believe that the future will be better. I choose to believe that life has meaning. You may say I am deluding myself but I choose to believe otherwise. And in the absence of conclusive proof to the contrary, this is a reasonable belief to choose. I also choose it because the alternative is to give up. The alternative is, by definition, point-less. That is, if there is no point, then believing there is no point is itself point-less.
So there’s only one way forward, it’s the path of faith: believing that things can be better and that I can effect change. I would argue that there is no other practical way to actually live, since if you choose to believe otherwise then there is no reason to ever get out of bed again. And yet every morning you do… and I think that’s because deep down you do believe that things can get better, you do believe that your choices matter. My call today is to consciously choose to believe that. And to consciously choose to spread this faith far and wide with everyone you meet. This is the beginning of the rest of our lives. This is the precursor to a brighter future.
I’m not saying that this is all there is to it. I’ll write more on this. What I’m saying is that this has to be the starting point, for all of us, every day. CHOOSE HOPE.
<a href=’https://www.freepik.com/photos/tree’>Tree photo created by jcomp – www.freepik.com</a>