June 13, 2024

Instagram generation confuse normal stress and anxiety with mental health conditions

The Instagram generation are confusing normal stress and anxiety for mental health conditions because increased awareness has led to “over interpretation” and “over pathologisation”, the head of a leading public school has warned.

James Dahl, master of Wellington College, said that online diagnosis tools on social media sites like Instagram are convincing many children they have an issue when they are just experiencing “the normal undulations of the teenage life cycle”.

The famous Berkshire school is helping pupils to identify and navigate their changing emotions alongside tackling issues including so-called toxic masculinity as part of an all-encompassing well-being curriculum.

Dahl believes social media as well as “armchair diagnoses” by the unqualified are leading to “normal transient forms of teenage upset and distress being interpreted as significant mental health issues”.

“There is a prevalence on social media of accounts and people offering tools for self-diagnosis and the language of psychiatry and medicalisation and diagnosis is in the mainstream.

“All you have to do is flip through any teenage stream on Instagram and you will see people say ‘I can tell you in 15 seconds if you’re depressed’ and it is all rubbish and what it is doing is whipping up this landscape where there is too much interpretation and self-diagnosis around the normal ups and downs of what it means to be a teenager.

“What happens now is that too many will say ‘Oh, I’ve got anxiety’, but what they actually mean is ‘At the moment, I’m feeling anxious’. That’s very different to a medically diagnosed mental health condition which can be horrific and debilitating.

“A diagnosis from a fully qualified medical practitioner can be incredibly useful but done by any other route that is not fully evidenced based or medically certificated, it is deeply problematic.

“This is what schools are dealing with and that is the negative side of the significantly improved awareness raising of mental health issues in the young. It is very difficult for schools.”

Happiness lessons

Wellington, founded by Queen Victoria in 1856, has long been recognised as a pioneer in teenage wellbeing after former master Anthony Seldon introduced “happiness lessons” nearly two decades ago in 2006.

Today, the school’s wellbeing curriculum which “runs through everything we do” includes a focus on “what it means to be a boy or man in 2024” against the backdrop of the toxic masculinity debate and controversial online influencers including Andrew Tate.

Dahl says the language used in sessions with boys and young men is crucial to engaging them.

Toxic masculinity is itself a really problematic phrase because before you’ve even opened your mouth to engage in a discussion about it, you’ve attached a very difficult and emotion-laden adjective to it so instead we prefer to talk about ‘positive masculinity’.

“We look at what it might mean to be a positive male role model in the modern world. We cover it in our wellbeing curriculum in co-ed sessions and also in our boys’ boarding houses.”

Dahl says that although there has always been “derogatory and divisive rhetoric in the teenage boy lexicon”, it is now “more dangerous than ever” because of the sexual violence it incites and the “endemic porn all of our young people are exposed to”.

“Pretty much all of the boys who arrive with us at age 13 will already have been exposed quite significantly to that sort of aggressive Andrew Tate style old-fashioned disruptive opinions about what it means to be a man.”

Looking at these issues through “a well-being lens” is crucial to the college’s work, says Dahl:

“Well-being is not just mindfulness and having a well-being lesson, it’s rooted in meaningful relationships and in positive human to human connections with people around you.

“For us it’s about providing the space where young people can process the normal ups and downs of teenage emotions and learn how to regulate them.”

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