How can I make a difference to the mental health of our young people? That was my question and it hit me like a lightning bolt one evening.
To give some context to my life, I am a stepmother to four children, I have a three year old daughter and have recently given birth to my second baby. I also work full time in banking.
Sadly, for the past four years a member of our family has suffered with anorexia. It is fair to say we will never know the root cause of this and maybe neither will they, but it is apparent that they are not alone in the anxiety, depression, physical and mental health challenges that they have faced in their younger years. I’ve been to eating disorder in-patient clinics and I have always been shocked and saddened by how full these units are with young girls and boys alike. Many have had eating disorders take hold in their pre-adolescent years just like famous victims Nikki Grahame and Gemma Oaten.
The pandemic has meant young people have spent more time at home and online but I must stress, this isn’t only a post-pandemic problem. They are seeing more content than ever that is edited or filtered and it is having a disastrous effect on their self-esteem. The statistics don’t lie and in the UK, 9 out of every 10 girls with low body esteem, put their health at risk by not seeing a doctor or by skipping meals. Also over a quarter of eating disorder sufferers are male. The reality is that the true numbers could be much higher but stigma stops people and carers from getting the support they need.
I have been contacted by many teachers who have told me about conversations with their students who feel under pressure from social media perfection or crippling loneliness when they feel that their face doesn’t fit. I have also been contacted by countless parents who are terrified of how body conscious their children are, with ages starting from as young as 8. I have also spoken with many adults who have suffered their own mental health challenges in their adolescent years, signing the petition because they just can’t fathom how they would have survived against the odds that the youth of today are growing up with.
The more people I speak to about the petition, the more it makes me want to ensure there is change, protection and honesty to give our young people a fair chance in today’s world.
Now, there is one thing I need to make crystal clear. I have nothing against social media. In fact I think it can be hugely positive to all of our lives. I also have nothing against editing or filtering, it is completely each to their own. What I have a problem with is the lack of honesty, which is causing young people to believe they need to be flawless yet striving for this, is damaging their mental health. Do I believe social media is the problem for the challenges in youth mental health? No. Does it exacerbate the problem? Absolutely. Mental health challenges can quickly become deeply rooted and leave scars for life. Our children and young people deserve better than that.
In trying to evoke change, I have recently begun a petition on Change.org to amend the social media laws to state when an image has been filtered or digitally edited. This is now the law in a number of countries, Norway being the most recent. If it can happen there, then why not in the UK? What I am hoping this solution could do, is to help our young people and next generation to understand that these posts aren’t real and their true self is more important, as well as their mental and physical health.
What I have realised is that each individual can help create positive change. It really does only take 30 seconds to put your name against the petition and then share with your own network. The momentum of this campaign has been amazing with several MPs on board, charity organisations and individuals who are experts in their fields. Collaboration is key here. If we all pull together we really can protect our next generation. I’m a parent, an auntie, a person who cares. That is all it takes. Somebody to do something.
Whilst my family has been my first hand experiences of mental health challenges in young people, I have just seen one too many examples to not do something about it.
In the words of Emma Watson, If not me, who? If not now, when?
The link to the campaign is https://www.change.org/ChangeSocialMediaLaws
Instagram - @protectyouthmentalhealth
Twitter - @SuzanneSamaka