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Teen UK: A generation sitting on a mental health time bomb


Experts reveal the great harm young people are doing themselves now and for the future.


Jonathan Thompson and Sophie Goodchild

The Independent UK - This Britain

Published: 27 November 2005


Dr Dylan Griffiths has spent more than 20 years healing the minds of troubled teenagers. But the psychiatrist is shocked by what he is now facing on a daily basis. He is treating record numbers of disturbed young patients, unable to cope with the pressures of modern life, who are hooked on drink, drugs and underage sex, or who are so desperate they even contemplate suicide.


The age of experimentation among Britain's teenagers is dropping every year, he and other leading health workers warn, creating a mental health time bomb which will create a generation of dysfunctional adults.


"For today's teens, marijuana, cocaine and alcohol are as ubiquitous as traffic on the street," said Dr Griffiths, who is based at Ticehurst House Hospital in East Sussex.


"Adolescents who self-harmed were rare 30 years ago. Today, self-harming is a dramatic, addictive behaviour, a maladaptive way for growing numbers of youngsters to relieve their psychological distress."


The shocking extent of teen angst among Britain's youth is revealed tomorrow in one of the most comprehensive reports ever carried out into adolescent mental health. Backed by counsellors, drug experts and mental health charities including Sane, the independent study commissioned by the Priory Group paints a bleak picture of the growing mental-health crisis among 12- to 19-year-olds.


Family break-up, increasing pressure to achieve at school, a lack of tolerance in society and an "anything goes" attitude are all contributing to a rise in the number of young people pushed to the brink of suicide, with others driven to experiment with drugs, drink and underage sex as a way of coping with stress.


More than 900,000 adolescents have been so miserable they have considered suicide, the study says. A million have wanted to self-harm and more than half a million have experienced bullying or violence at home.


The Priory research is based on interviews with 1,000 girls and boys across the country as well as an analysis of figures provided by the Office of National Statistics. More than one in seven 14-year-olds and one in 25 young people of 13 said they had had sex. Around one in every 13 teenage boys and girls said they had gone through with sex because of peer pressure, not because they wanted to.


Ministers are discussing measures to make family doctors warn police and social workers about young patients who are having under-age sex.


Peer pressure was also to blame for many adolescents using alcohol or drugs - one in 20 teenagers of 13 and around one in six 15-year-olds had experimented with illegal substances in the belief that it would make them look "cool" and be better accepted at school.


Another worrying trend is the increase in teenagers who have such low self-esteem that they think they need radical surgery to make them look "normal". Nearly one in five 15-year-old girls and boys and one in every 20 young people of 13 said they had considered plastic surgery.


Counsellors, drug experts and mental health charities agree that action is needed urgently to prevent a generation of young people growing up with serious mental health problems. Dr Angharad Rudkin, a children's therapist, said that the internet and mobiles, which have given rise to text bullying, were factors.


"There is a lot more stress now in the education system and a pressure on teenagers to be thin, beautiful, successful and to have sex," said the clinical psychologist, based in Basingstoke, Hampshire. "There's less guidance for teenagers, less mentoring and fewer role models for positive behaviour."


Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of Sane, said that increased availability of drugs was a huge factor in the rise in young people suffering from mental illness.


"Young people who may have symptoms of mental illness rumbling under the surface are being pushed to flashpoint very quickly because of binge drinking and the availability of drugs, particularly chemical hybrids," she said. "Many of them will go on to develop lasting mental illness."


Virginia Ironside, the agony aunt and writer, said that the "curse" of a wealthy society was that young people had too much choice, so were confused about their identity.


"Pressures are absolutely nothing compared with what they used to be - pressure used to be going up chimneys. But at least if you are going up a chimney you know where you are."


DRINK: Emma East, 15

"My home life stresses me out as I often have fights with my family. It means I can't concentrate in school and it affects my schoolwork. My family don't get on at all. I got really badly drunk once and was sick in the pub, so I haven't touched the stuff since last Christmas. I had a really bad experience and don't want to touch the stuff any more. I've been to church for the past five years. My parents don't go; I go by myself. You learn things there to help you in your everyday life. It's a support network."

72% of 14-year-olds have consumed alcohol


DRUGS: Sevim Hodge, 16

"It starts at secondary school, where there is a huge emphasis on status. Drugs offer an easy solution to these pressures. From the age of 13 I was smoking cannabis with my friends. It was only my own willpower that helped me stop, and what I saw happening to my friends. I'm still friends with people who take drugs and at least a third of them now are regular users, but it can easily spiral out of control. I've seen cocaine taken openly in the playground."

53% of 16-year-olds have tried illegal substances such as marijuana or cocaine


BULLYING: Michael Licudi, 17

"I was targeted by homophobic bullies outside my school and ended up on anti-depressants. Being gay, I've struggled because US rap culture promotes masculine stereotypes in schools. The media, particularly programmes such as Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show, also legitimise a certain way of saying and doing things. If you don't match those stereotypes, then it makes acceptance much more difficult. There has always been a cool group, but media influence gives them an added legitimacy and power."

28% of 13-year-olds are bullied at school


SELF HARM: Imogen Townley, 15

"It's a bit weird, but a lot of girls in my year cut themselves. I think it's supposed to be some kind of statement, because they roll their sleeves up in class to show the marks. It's like they're trying to say, 'Look at me, I'm so stressed out, so messed up and misunderstood, so beautiful but lonely.' But all they're trying to do is get attention."

19% of 15-year-olds have wanted to hurt themselves


SEX: Amari Nunesi, 14

"Of course teenagers are going to have sex. We like doing it, it's as simple as that. We like it as much as adults do. Society can't stop it. Nobody can stop it. The only thing that would stop it is if they made more ugly girls. Family-wise it's more difficult for teenagers now, because a lot of people don't have two parents, so they don't know who to go to with their problems. Sometimes you want to speak to your mum about something, but if you're staying with your dad you can't."

32% of 14-year-olds have had sexual intercourse


STRESS: Steph Ashcroft, 13

"There are people from my school who have anger management counselling, and others who have counselling for depression and abnormal behaviour. I guess about 10 people in my year are having therapy. There are some kids who have hit teachers over the head with chairs. Sometimes they just go ape and throw everything about. There are a lot of people at school with a lot of issues, unfortunately. I get tense myself sometimes. I got an after-school detention last week for calling one of the teachers a stroppy cow."

15% of 14-year-olds have considered taking their own lives


BODY IMAGE: Sebastian Emin, 13

"I am happy with my body but I would definitely change my height. I used to get picked on because I'm only 4ft 6in. Everyone sees something they don't like about themselves. If you take a photo, you look at your lips or your eyes and you think they look horrible. We always find something wrong with ourselves. I think Peter Andre has got the perfect body. He's more popular because of his looks - particularly his muscles. Britney Spears has the perfect female figure. She's so slim."

15% of 14-year-olds have considered plastic surgery