OPINION: Mental Health: We’re sitting on a time bomb - how do we defuse it?

Mark H Durkan.
Mark H Durkan.

The issue of mental health is a huge one, a challenging one and a growing one.

As an elected representative in a city with what appears to be a disproportionate rate of mental ill-health, not a week passes without several people contacting me about difficulties they have accessing services, support and looking for help taking on a system that seems stacked against them.

What is heartening, however- is the number of people who contact me looking, not to get help but to give help.

I am well aware of the heroic work being carried out by organisations, against a backdrop of ever-increasing demand and strain on their budgets.

Their work is invaluable and it is important that they know their work is valued.

It would be ultracrepidarian of me to lecture on what the problems are, why things are as bad as they are or seem to be; and on what we must do to solve them - but I will, or at least attempt to, give an overview of how things look from my perspective.

Through my years as a councillor and now as an MLA I am lucky enough to have had a lot of engagement with young people and over those years I have seen a huge shift in the dynamic.

In the past, Q&A sessions with teenagers was like pulling teeth. Now they want to talk. They ask wider questions about society around them- and the topic they choose to talk about most frequently is mental health.

While this is indicative of a welcome erosion of the stigma around the subject, it is also sadly reflective of the prevalence of mental health issues.

The world is in a state of flux and uncertainty and far from being insulated from it, our young people are the most vulnerable to it.

They feel under so much pressure. Pressure from school, pressure at home, pressure to think of a future career- especially in a place where opportunities seem few.

Pressure to have the best of clothes, to have the best make-up, to have big muscles or a tiny waist.

And they have to have them now, instantly, to share with ‘friends’ (many of whom you don’t even know) on whatever the latest social media platform is.

Pressure to fit in, to connect. And sometimes I think it is in that pursuit of connection that young people become more disconnected.

Pile on top of this the wider societal challenges of poverty, substance abuse and misuse, the reaping of inter-generational trauma sown by the conflict here-we’re sitting on a time bomb.

How do we defuse it? How do we rewire this generation to equip them to cope with the crap that life will invariably throw at them?

Thomas Edison said: ‘There’s a way, find it.’ Let’s find the way. And when we have found the way- we must make sure there is the will to implement it.

I have no doubt that there is the will in this city, I have no doubt that together we can find a way. But there must also be a political will.

We need those in power to make decisions – getting people with power to make decisions would be a start – to allocate resource to building resilience, to promoting well-being, helping us to look after ourselves and to look out for each other.