Another day, another survey about girls’ mental health. The latest one from Girlguiding UK shows a sharp fall in happiness over the last 10 years with social media and exam pressure most to blame. It’s certainly something that chimes with my experience of three teenage daughters. They put more pressure on themselves to succeed at school for a variety of reasons – key among them is the female push for perfectionism, the underlying impetus of which is that women are never good enough. The fear of failure is all-pervading coupled with a huge lack of confidence, which is fuelled by the feeling that, as daughter three put it, every single part of them is being judged and found wanting. The survey also shows a rise in feminist action and interest in STEM subjects, which is great, but behind that activism is an awareness that the playing field is not level and that women are likely to face not just inequality, but harassment and worse. Daughter one told me the other day that she was lucky she had not yet been assaulted. The general gist of what she was saying was that it was only a matter of time.
There are reports of friends self-harming and anxiety levels are very high. Daughter three had panic attacks due to a mixture of bullying, friendship issues [of which the “popularity” contest that is social media was a part] and loneliness earlier this year. A Facebook forum I am on for parents of school refusers shows very high levels of school anxiety problems for teenage girls in particular. Daughter three is at a new school now, but the effects linger.
Daughter one is regretting her gap year decision as she is worried she is falling behind her peers who are all supposedly having a great time at university, although she feels that university is just one step nearer to a life in debt. The general atmosphere in which they are growing up doesn’t help. Anxiety and uncertainty are everywhere – parents feel it acutely too. Fear of the future has been behind many of the political backlash movements. Older people seem to feel it is better to launch ourselves into some sort of 1950s fantasy than face up to the future and try and shape it in a positive way. Their children and grandchildren will be hit by the reality and many of those children and grandchildren are acutely aware of this.
There are a lot of old people’s homes near where we live. I suggested daughter one volunteer. She replied why would she want to help old racist people who have torched her future. She’s done some voluntary work in an old people’s home before. She knows the views that are prevalent. Don’t underestimate young people’s anger.
This is the workforce of the future. This is the workforce that has to deal with uncertainty and change as part of their everyday experience. Are we preparing them for that? Schools don’t have the resources to cope even with the panic attacks and self-harm that are going on as a matter of course.
As parents we are exhausted just getting through the week. It is absolutely draining trying to bolster people’s confidence on a daily basis, particularly if you don’t have much confidence yourself. This is a huge societal issue and parents need support. Flexible working is something, but flexing around too many jobs and too much work just leads to exhaustion. Something has to give. Let’s just hope it isn’t the future.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.