Are smartphones damaging young people’s mental health?

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week saw the launch of Universities UK’s #stepchange campaign – a framework that aims to help universities support the mental wellbeing of their student populations. In their case for action as to why the framework was needed, the organisation noted that recent years have seen an increase in the number of student suicides in the UK and the US, as well as an increase in the number of students reporting mental health issues.

Both countries rank in the top 10 in terms of smartphone users across the world, with close to 70% of each country’s population being smartphone owners. And within that percentage, 18-24 year olds are the highest using age group.

Smartphone dependence and its impact

Earlier this year, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) released a report that looked at the impact that the ubiquity of smartphones is having on young people’s mental health, focusing on their social media activity. Some of the headline figures from the report include the fact that over 90% of the 16-24 age group use the internet for social media, primarily via their phones. It is also noted that the number of people with at least one social media profile increased from 22% to 89% between 2007 and 2016. Also on the increase? The number of people experiencing mental health issues including anxiety and depression.

Can rising anxiety and depression rates really be linked to increased internet and smartphone use? The RSPH report notes that social media use has been linked to both, alongside having a detrimental impact on sleeping patterns, due to the blue light emitted by smartphones. This point came from a study carried out at Harvard, which looked at the impact of artificial lighting on circadian rhythms. While the study focused on the link between exposure to light at night and conditions including diabetes, it also noted an impact on sleep duration and melatonin secretion – both of which are linked to inducing depressive symptoms.

So what’s the answer? Smartphones aren’t going away anytime soon, as seen in the excitement that greets every new edition of the iPhone, a decade on from its launch. With children now being as young as 10 when they receive their first smartphone, parents obviously have a role in moderating use. This inevitably becomes more difficult as children grow up, however, and factors such as peer pressure come into play. And it’s also worth acknowledging that heavy smartphone use isn’t restricted to the younger generation – their parents are just as addicted as they are.

Supporting children and young people

In February Childline released figures which stated that they carried out over 92,000 counselling sessions with children and young people about their mental health and wellbeing in 2015-16 – equivalent to one every 11 minutes. Although technology clearly has its impact – the helpline has also reported a significant increase in the number of sessions it carries out in relation to cyberbullying – the blame can’t be laid completely at its door. Although the world has gone through turbulent times in the past, it’s been well documented recently that today’s young people have it worse than their parents’ generation, particularly in terms of home ownership and job stability. Others have pointed towards a loss of community connections in society, and children spending less time outdoors than previous generations – not only due to devices that keep them indoors but also hypervigilant parents.

In fact, perhaps we hear more about mental health issues experienced by children and young people because smartphones and social media have given them an outlet to express their feelings – something previous generations didn’t have the ability to do. What we should be focusing on is how to respond to these expressions – something we’re still not getting right, despite countless reports and articles making recommendations to governments on how they can do better in this area.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other articles on mental health.

Mindfulness in schools: does it work?

by Stacey Dingwall

Over the last couple of years, the concept of being mindful has almost become a buzzword. However, mindfulness has actually been around since the 16th century, before being developed as a modern day western Buddhist practice from the 1970s.

Transform your life?

On the 17th of March, along with almost 400 other people, I attended the Transform Your Life event at Glasgow’s Trades Hall. The event was organised by the Kadampa Meditation Centre (KMC) in Glasgow, a Buddhist temple which opened in 2013 with the aim of providing a space for people to learn how to meditate and practise Buddhism.

The talk was delivered by Gen Dao, a senior Kadampa teacher who has been ordained for over 20 years, teaching at centres in America and Australia before taking up her current post as principle teacher at KMC Liverpool. Its focus was on equipping attendants with the ability to cope with everyday stresses and anxieties, by applying some simple meditation and mindfulness techniques.

After demonstrating a basic breathing technique, Gen Dao opened her talk by commenting on how prevalent mindfulness has become, noting that it is now used as a management technique and as a means of selling women’s magazines. She spoke about the benefits of using mindfulness not only on a personal level, but also how actively improving your mind can awaken the potential to bring benefit to others. Mindfulness, she explained, was essentially just remembering to breathe, and trying to focus on experiencing only positive states of mind.

The remainder of Gen Dao’s talk concentrated on the importance of mastering the ability to ‘oppose’ negative thoughts, and making the decision to be content and happy, without the intervention of others. Also highlighted was the need to strive for ‘patient acceptance’, or the ability to give up on the feeling that things in your life should be different – instead, we should learn how to view our feelings from a more detached perspective, and not identify with painful feelings, or “bad weather” in the mind.

Speaking to Gen Dao after the talk, I raised the point that, although not a physical pursuit, mindfulness is something that you have to train in, and learning to adapt to a new way of thinking is something that could take some time. Essentially, adopting a mindful outlook could mean changing the habits of a lifetime.

Mindfulness in the classroom

This could explain why some schools are now incorporating mindfulness exercises into classes, in order to prepare young people for the future. Last July, BBC News reported on the first large-scale trial of mindfulness exercises in schools across the UK conducted by the Wellcome Trust, during which researchers will look at whether introducing mindfulness at an early age can help build psychological resilience. The exercises, which will include deep breathing and a practice called ‘thought buses’ in which participants will be taught to see their thoughts as buses that they can either get on or allow to pass by, are designed to show children how to live in the present and eventually, equip them with the ability to solve problems while under stress.

The study will involve around 6,000 children and young people; a considerably larger amount than have taken part in previous evaluations of the impact of mindfulness in schools. While the existing evidence is currently described as limited, these smaller studies have indicated that mindfulness interventions with children and young people do have some success in generating lower stress levels and a greater sense of wellbeing among participants. These findings are important, given that a recent survey of school leaders by the Association of School and College Leaders found that 55% of respondents reported a significant increase in the number of young people in their schools who are dealing with anxiety and stress.

Case study: Mindfulness in Schools Project

The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) was founded in 2007 by former teachers Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen. Having experienced the benefits of mindfulness themselves, they developed “.B”, a 9-week course that aims to make mindfulness accessible, and fun, for secondary school pupils. The course, which has also been adapted for younger children as Paws B, is now being taught in twelve countries, including the UK. Teachers and pupils who have used the programme report on its ability to restore calm to a class after break, for example, or to calm pupils down at times of particular stress, such as exams or performances. It has also been suggested that the programme can help to improve pupils’ ability to concentrate.

Critics of the impact of mindfulness in the classroom argue that these results cannot be relied on, due to the experiments taking place outside of the boundaries of a randomised controlled trial. They also point to the possibility that participants’ ability to concentrate may only have improved due to their being informed that this is what the exercises are designed to do. Richard Burnett has openly recognised the limits of mindfulness himself, emphasising that it cannot replace the fact that some people require medication and clinical care to deal with their condition, and is more effective in smaller groups supervised by medically trained professionals. Trainers delivering the programme are also open about the fact that mindfulness is not something that will work for every child. What it can do, however, is provide a reminder to breathe when things get too much – something that can surely only be a positive for everyone.

If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in our previous commentary on mental health issues:

Ecotherapy in practice: nature based mental health care

Ecotherapy, also known as nature-based or green care is an alternative therapy for people suffering from mental health issues. It can be delivered as an individual treatment or in combination with traditional medicinal and talking-based treatments. Charities and research has suggested that it can reduce depression, anger, anxiety and stress as well as improving self-esteem and increasing emotional resilience.

Spessartbach

The mental health charity MIND emphasises the positive health benefits, commenting that ecotherapy:

  • is accessible
  • can take place in both urban and rural settings in parks, gardens, farms and woodlands
  • works through people either working in nature or experiencing nature

It can be structured or more informal, with some areas providing therapist led classes while elements of ecotherapy, such as taking walks or gardening, can also be done without specialist supervision, on your own or with family members and friends.

AAT and AAI (Animal Assisted Interventions and Animal Assisted Therapy)

This form of therapy uses guided contact with animals such as horses or dogs. It is becoming increasingly popular in university settings, with dog cafes or dog rooms during student mental health weeks or during exam times to help alleviate student exam stress. Pet therapy has also been shown to be effective with children and young people who suffer from anxiety or who have experienced trauma, and for elderly people suffering from dementia.

Therapy could be one to one or in a group and could also be delivered to people who are in residential care setting. AAT can also be used to assist mobility and coordination or simply to spend relaxed time with animals where patients can feed or pet them. This interaction can promote bonding between the individual and animal which has been found to reduce stress and anxiety.

Nature Arts and Craft Therapy

Nature based art therapy takes inspiration from nature to create and provide materials to create art work. This type of therapy can also include social and therapeutic horticulture (STH). This can be a particularly effective form of nature based intervention as it can be adapted to suit a wide range of mobility and abilities and could potentially lead to work experience or the sale of goods created, which in itself can build self-confidence and transferable skills.

Adventure Therapy

This therapy focusses on using physical activities to encourage psychological support, It includes activities such as rafting, rock climbing and caving. Often done in a group, this type of therapy aims to build trust and raise confidence. While it can be strenuous, less able individuals can take part in green exercise therapy, which largely includes walks and rambling, or wilderness therapy (which includes physical group and team activities such as making shelters and hiking).

Effectiveness of ecotherapy

In February 2016, Natural England published A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care, which considered the benefits and outcomes of approaches to green care or ecotherapy for mental ill health.

One of the main challenges the report highlights is to increase the availability of green therapies in order to make the practice more normalised within treatment. The authors also speak about the importance of standardising the use of terms such as ‘ecotherapy’, ‘green care’ and ‘nurture based interventions’ to allow people to fully understand what different interventions entail. The report makes nine recommendations, including:

  • expanding the evidence base around green therapy
  • increasing the scale of commissioning of green care initiatives
  • increasing collaboration between the green care sector and health and social care practitioners

Ecotherapy is still not widely accepted as a mainstream approach to mental health treatment. However, it is increasingly being offered as a combination therapy alongside traditional drug-or talking-based interventions. Advocates of ecotherapy hope that this will lead to wider acceptance of the approach and the positive effect it can have on people who suffer from mental ill health.

Advocates emphasise the holistic and person-centred benefits of ecotherapy, which has been shown to improve physical health as well as mental wellbeing. As the video below demonstrates, it increases social skills and in many instances can help people build new or develop existing skills which can help them enter, or re-enter employment. Potentially this may also reduce the burden on care and community mental health services.


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The way forward for mental health services for children and young people

Black and white photo of young girl.

Image courtesy of Flickr user darcyadelaide using a Creative Commons license

By Steven McGinty

“Not fit for purpose” and “stuck in the dark ages”

These are two of the phrases used by the Care Minister, Norman Lamb, to describe mental health services for children and young people in England. The minister admitted that young people are being let down by the current system and has announced that a new taskforce will look into how the system should be improved.  To coincide with this review, I decided to look at the current situation for children and young people with mental illness, as well as highlight some of the main themes from the latest evidence.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that one in ten children and young people (aged 5-16) have a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder. This covers a broad range of disorders, including emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression, as well as less common disorders such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and eating disorders. Approximately 2% of these young people will have more than one mental disorder. The most common combinations of disorders are conduct and emotional disorders and conduct and hyperkinetic disorders.

The likelihood of a young person developing a mental disorder is increased depending on a number of individual and family/ social factors. There are a whole range of risk factors, but some of these include:

  • having a parent in prison
  • experiencing abuse or neglect
  • having a parent with a mental health condition
  • having an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)

It’s important to note that mental illness is complex, and that not everyone in these risk groups will struggle with it. This is particularly true when a young person is in receipt of consistent long-term support from at least one adult.

The impact of mental illness can be particularly difficult for young people. For instance, the National Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) Support Service reported that young people who suffer from anxiety in childhood are 3.5 times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety in adulthood. There is also an increased chance of young people coming into contact with the criminal justice system, with Young et al highlighting that 43% of young people in prison have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The Centre for Mental Health also suggests that young people with mental health problems struggle to achieve academically, as well as in the employment market.

When a government minister condemns his own department, it’s evident that there are severe problems.  However, this does not have to be the case.

Below I’ve outlined some of the key lessons to come from evidence on what makes a good mental health service for children and young people.

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Managing mental ill health in the workplace

Laptop and coffee mug photoBy Donna Gardiner

As one in six employees will suffer from mental ill health at some point during their working lives, ensuring the wellbeing of employees is increasingly becoming a management priority (EU-OSHA, 2014). Indeed, the financial cost to British business of mental ill health has been estimated at £26 billion per year – which is equivalent to £1035 for every employee.

A public sector problem?

Mental ill health is particularly prevalent among public sector workers. According to the latest Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) absence management report, 60% of public sector organisations reported an increase in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression among employees over the previous 12 months. This is compared to 38% of private sector organisations and 37% of non-profit organisations. Public sector organisations were also more likely to report that stress-related absence had increased among the workforce as a whole (55% compared to 38% of private organisations and 39% of non-profit organisations).

Considerable organisational change and restructuring was one of the most commonly reported causes of work-related stress, followed by workload. Both of these could be viewed as knock-on effects of budget cuts caused by the economic recession, the current drive towards public sector transformation and the increasing need to ‘do more with less’.

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How should we address loneliness and social isolation among older people?

For elderly men sitting on a bench

Image courtesy of http://goo.gl/A8ykMA using a Creative Commons licence.

By Steven McGinty

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted, is the most terrible poverty“– Mother Teresa

Yet, for many older people, loneliness and social isolation are the normal state of affairs. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 34% of people aged 52 and over felt lonely often or sometimes, with this figure reaching 46% for people aged 80 or over. Rather worryingly, a report by Age UK also suggested that over half of older people consider the television as their main source of company.

In many respects, these figures may not be too surprising, with some arguing that this is simply the by-product of changing societal attitudes. Conversely, it could also be said that these changes are a response to the demands of busy modern life. For example, a report published by the Royal Voluntary Service highlights that, because of uncertainty in the job market, many children have to move away from their parents for work reasons. The impact of this is that many older people are seeing their families less and less, with 48% of parents only seeing their children once every two to six months. Continue reading

How does where you live affect your wellbeing?

Over crowded tube platform London

People living in areas with a high population density have higher levels of anxiety

by Alan Gillies

How does the place you live affect your wellbeing? That was the topic of two separate studies we received in the Information Service last week. With the current interest in place-making, the issue is a topical one.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main message from both studies is that people’s own individual characteristics, such as physical health problems, socio-economic status, and employment status, had a much larger relationship with personal wellbeing than the characteristics of the places in which they live. However both studies found that place did have an impact on people’s personal wellbeing. Continue reading

Ending the stigma around anxiety: Mental Health Awareness Week 2014

man crying

by Steven McGinty

Today marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness week. The campaign started in 2000 with the aim of raising the awareness of a specific mental health issue. Previous issues have included alcohol, stigma and exercise and this year’s focus is the impact of anxiety. To highlight this event, the Knowledge Exchange has summarised some of the most recent literature on anxiety and mental health more generally. Continue reading