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Youth Mental Health Matters:

There are 1.2 Billion Youth Aged 15-24 Years in the World

"Youth and Mental Health": The shocking statistic is that 1 in 5 young people suffer from mental illness.  Many more suffer from mild depression and loneliness.  This is a plea to all youth workers, social/health-care workers, academics, teachers, the youth themselves, parents, schools, colleges, universities, civil societies dealing with youth, politicians, media, business community, religious and spiritual leaders, all the people of good will:  Make 2015 a year where you purposefully ensure that a permanent, safe, creative space is made available for all young people to speak their heart, anxiety, worries, hopes and dreams.  Let us all become a vehicle of hope and ensure young people are transformed into responsible global citizens, having overcome any disadvantages that they might have faced in the past.  This is a true Common Good Vision.

A Plea to address Global Youth Depression

Studies after studies are demonstrating that the number of young adults, youth and students, who are struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and psychosis all across the world, is rising.  The problem is most acute at university and college campuses world-wide and has become a global mental health crisis.  The age at which many mental disorders manifest themselves is between 18 and 24, which coincides directly with the average age of student enrolment in higher education.  Moreover, it is also noted that psychological disorders, for which students are being treated while studying in higher education, are increasing in severity.  Adolescent suicide rates have tripled over the past 60 years, making suicide the second leading cause of death for that age group.

It should also be noted that depression and anxiety disorder are not confined to our higher education institutes.  Today's schoolchildren too are at a higher risk of depression than any previous generation.  As many as 9% of children will experience a major depressive episode by the time they are 14 years old, and 20% will experience a major depressive episode before graduating from high school.  Having suffered from depression as children, these young people are much more vulnerable to depression as adults.

Mental health is the side of university life that stays behind closed doors.  It's increasingly common though.  Last year it was announced that the number of university students seeking counselling rose by 33%.  In a report by the National Union of Students, 20% of students consider themselves to have a mental health problem.

The above issues are furthermore confirmed by a latest survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute.  The survey of more than 150,000 students nationwide, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014,” found that a large number of students were suffering from depression, whilst many more “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments.

“It’s a public health issue,” said Dr. Anthony L. Rostain, a psychiatrist and co-chairman of a University of Pennsylvania task force on students’ emotional health.  “We’re expecting more of students: There’s a sense of having to compete in a global economy, and they think they have to be on top of their game all the time.  It’s no wonder they feel overwhelmed.”

“You have to get good grades, have all sorts of after-school activities that take up tons of hours, and you have to be happy and social — you have to be everything,” according to another observer.

As a former university lecturer with many years of experience, I have seen far too many tortured-minds and unhappy students.  These driven people see their lives flash by in fast living and fast cars, and most fail to realise they are missing the point of life.  To combat this debilitating illness, I suggest that universities should seriously consider developing courses and modules which are about emotional learning and emotional intelligence, which by definition are far more reflective activities than traditional classes.  Students should learn about how to form healthy and sustaining relationships.  They should gain understanding about the goals they should want to set in life, which should be realistic and appropriate for their own talents and interests.  The negative emotions which are an inevitable part of life should be explored: students should be able to learn more about what it is that causes them pain and unhappiness, how they might be able to avoid or minimise these emotions and how to deal with them when they do occur.  So the essence is that students learn more about themselves, which will be information that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives.

To encourage this path to students’ healing, the GCGI family in 2011 initiated the The Common Good Happiness Project: A Spiritual Quest for the Good Life’ project. I strongly believe that the time is ripe to revisit this initiative.  We owe it to our children and grandchildren: Our hopes for a better future.

In this project we seek to identify and bring forward the main ancient concepts of happiness and their relation to morality, ethics, business, economics, finance, management, media and environment, amongst others.  The guiding theoretical principle of this undertaking is to clarify and characterize the essential constituents of the concept of happiness as these are reflected in the ancient writings and debates, and to consider their enduring validity within the context of the study of socio-economic well-being and happiness, both at individual and societal levels.  At the same time — as politicians, governments and economists and others seek to identify the key components of happiness and how to measure it as an essential dimension of economic policies and planning behaviour — we will examine whether these ancient concepts may facilitate and provide workable platforms for developing a view, or views, on the nature of well-being and happiness that are viable today.

For me, an important way we can manifest the spiritual goal of developing a loving relationship with humanity and the entire web of life is to recognize the connection between economics and spirituality, and begin addressing the gross economic disparities of this world.  I believe this is our greatest spiritual challenge.

We live in an age of unprecedented individualism.  The highest obligation many people feel is to make the most of and for themselves, to realise their potential.  This is a terrifying and lonely objective.  Of course they feel obligations to other people too, but these are not based on any clear set of ideas.  The old religious worldview is gone; so too is the post-war religion of social and national solidarity.  We are left with no concept of the common good or collective meaning.

Therefore, in this era of divisions, disparity and polarisation, what should be our concept of the common good?  During the 18th-century Enlightenment, Jeremy Bentham and others argued that a good society was one where its members were as happy as possible.  Here Bentham’s wise words ring true as never before:

“Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.  Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains.  And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul.”

We must reorient economics, business and the world of education and work towards a truly meaningful and values-based development of human well-being, in balance with the well-being of nature, not simply the pursuit of unbridled economic growth, consumerism and materialism.  The world of autistic economics and business must change and only then can we claim that we are genuinely pursuing a wealth creation model that is providing for the happiness and the good life for the good of all.  Not to stand back and question the status quo would be to compound failure with failure: failure of vision with failure of responsibility.

I do hope that you may join me in this journey transforming our education, schools and universities to be more for well-being and happiness, more for the common good.

Arming children and the young people with anti-depressive thinking skills hopefully will short-circuit this cycle of depression and provide a cost-effective, longer-lasting, drug-free alternative to antidepressants or hospitalisation.

* I wish to thank Rosemary Dewan, Chief Executive, Human Values Foundation, who so enthusiastically read the first draft of this article and made very useful comments and suggestions. However, the responsibility for this Blog is mine alone.

For cited research and further reading please see:

Why Happiness Should be Taught at Our Universities