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Keeping it steady amid teen angst

22 May 2015

I REMEMBER when I was a teenager going to a Lee Abbey house party, and in a conversation with the resident deaconess, I confessed that I was prone to feelings of depression. She harrumphed - that is the only appropriate word - and then said firmly that I should not get bogged down in such feelings; that they could lead to a spell in a mental hospital, and that was never a good idea. I took her advice, and managed to suppress my anxieties. I think in retrospect that her approach was right at the time. I was by no means ready to confront my personal demons.

Today, there is a rising tide of concern about the mental health of young people and the lack of appropriate facilities to care for those who need urgent treatment. It is not hard to see why many teenagers feel they are under acute pressure. School has become a testing ground where the scrutiny never lets up. Anxious parents drive their children to put grades above everything else.

Socially, children are confused about sex, and are exposed to porn, vulnerable to eating disorders and experimentation with drugs, lonely, and yet endlessly in touch with friends and foes through Facebook and its imitators. The below-teen generation of 10-12-year-olds are, a recent report from the Jacobs Foundation says, more worried and pessimistic about what life holds for them than those in much poorer countries such as Ethiopia or Nepal.

It is very difficult for parents and teachers to deal wisely with these issues. While an atmosphere of openness, encouragement, and lack of judgement is clearly helpful to those who are ready to receive help, there are others who may simply be terrified to have their inner agonies recognised by the authority figures around them. Some will grow out of their problems with counselling and support; some will not.

Some, like me, respond to rather bracing advice, and are able to control their anxieties until they are more ready to face them. If it is true that a reluctance to talk about mental illness harms those who need support, it may also be true that the current scale of public worry could turn a wobble into a life crisis. The Church can help by encouraging a sense of identity which is deeper than the peer group and broader than that of the family.

Teenage years are always a challenge. Fantasies of fame, glory, sex, and success contend with misery and despair. I am glad that I came through my years of teenage angst, but there were times when, in all honesty, it was a close shave.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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