It is Mental Health Awareness month here in Australia and it’s got me thinking about the things that contribute to our mental health. One of the greatest discoveries I have made about my own mental health is the power of practicing gratitude. Every day I think about all the things I am grateful for whether it’s the things that people do for me and others or for the simple beauty of the planet we live on. There is no doubt that this practice has brought about an important shift in how I feel about my life.
Anxiety in young people
At the same time, I’ve been watching closely what’s been going on in the world as young people protest and strike because of Climate Change. I have deep concerns about their future as indeed they have themselves hence the reason why an estimated four million children across seven continents have come out en masse.
I can feel their anxiety. I cried as I listened to 16 year old Greta Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York a couple of weeks ago. She was addressing world leaders when she said ‘you have stolen my dreams and my childhood’. Her passionate plea hit hard and served as a wake-up call to all of us that not enough is being done to address the fact that, as Greta put it “we are in the beginning of a mass extinction”. Millions of people are already suffering from the catastrophic effects of extreme disasters made worse by climate change – from prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa to devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Last year we witnessed devastating heatwaves and wildfires that killed hundreds of people in Greece, Japan, Portugal, Pakistan and the USA.
Saving a planet in crisis
And while the world stands by and watches theses disasters unfold, our world leaders continue to focus on the day to day issues. Greta so aptly called it out during her speech when she said “And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” Surely the job of a leader is to take a strategic, long term view of the world so as to ensure its sustainability for future generations?
There is no doubt that young people are carrying the weight of climate change on their own shoulders because of the inaction of world leaders such as Trump and Morrison.
To add insult to injury, those that are brave enough to speak up are being ridiculed and vilified by some leaders, sceptics, people with a vested interest in keeping things just as they are and online trolls. You have to admire these young people for taking a stand and becoming the activists that are so badly needed to help save our planet.
Those that are protesting and striking are doing something positive. They are standing up and taking action. They are galvanising others to call it out too. Their mental health will be positively impacted by this as they empower themselves. It is a fact that young people who feel disempowered suffer more. Hiding away and pretending everything’s OK will not make this issue go away. I worry about the kids who are doing nothing, who live in denial yet carry a fear for the future deep inside of them. They are the ones who will be the most anxious because, let’s face it, it’s impossible to live in blissful ignorance about climate change given how pervasive the topic has become.
The importance of integrity
I’ve always known that each of us has a responsibility to speak up when there is something that goes against our principles. If we don’t call it out then we bury it inside and it will eventually wreak havoc on our mental health. Take bystander behaviour in the playground at school for example. Kids who watch other kids get bullied without calling it out end up living in fear that it will one day happen to them. Fear is at the root of all anxiety. When we choose to live in denial of what is going on around us we have to distract ourselves to avoid the fear and pain that we carry around inside. From experience it is better for our mental health in the long run to have the courage to face our issues, however painful, and address our fears head on. Pain is part of life. When we accept this we are better equipped to overcome it and find a healthier way of being.
The human-animal bond
Another issue that impacts on young people is animal cruelty. I regularly get called on by my kids to see the latest post on Instagram or Facebook relating to the maltreatment of animals which upsets them. It is evident from young people’s responses to these posts that they abhor anyone who inflicts suffering on animals. They feel compelled to share these posts in an attempt to raise awareness which they hope will lead to the perpetrators being brought to account for their actions. Another consequence of this awareness is the increase in the number of millennials becoming vegetarian or vegan. The bonds between humans and animals are powerful. And the positive correlation between pets and mental health is undeniable. According to one study I read, 95 per cent of pet owners think of their animal as a member of the family. I can certainly back this up in the way George is treated in our house! And I can affirm that George the Groodle has had a positive impact on the mental health of our entire household.
Keep a pet and feel good
There have been many studies done on the benefits of having a pet and it is clear that they can help to reduce stress and anxiety, especially amongst children and teenagers. Here are just some of the positives that animals bring to our mental health:
- Stroking an animal reduces blood pressure therefore reduces stress
- Taking a pet for a walk promotes better physical health through exercise which in turn stimulates the production of feel-good hormones
- Feeling needed by a pet allows us to reach out and do good thereby reducing loneliness
- Pets bring us into the present moment
- We experience unconditional love from having a pet. Unconditional love is known to stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain which makes us feel good
- Pets can help us counteract social isolation as they give us a common topic of interest that connects us to others
Notice how each of these benefits addresses some of the main causes of poor mental health in general. Social isolation is a big one for young people today. Since the advent of the internet, people are living more and more in virtual communities with reduced human contact. We all know the value of human touch and how a hug can make us feel when we are distressed. When you take this away from people you also remove their sense of belonging. Of course there are often other contributing factors such as chemical imbalances in the brain that can be addressed by medication which is why it’s important that a GP is involved in choosing the best treatments to suit a person’s needs.
A brighter future for young people
Helping young people overcome their anxieties is key to ensuring they enter adulthood with hope and optimism for a brighter future. If we can empathise with young people and the way they see the world we will be compelled to take action to relieve their suffering. Giving them the tools that will assist them to achieve this is our responsibility as adults and as parents. We need to validate their concerns, support them in their protests and encourage them to build the resilience that is needed to handle the onslaught of negativity that comes with being an activist. We must tell them that they have the power to make things happen and that they should never give up hope
People like Greta Thunberg are the new thought leaders and are inspiring more and more young people to take action. Let’s encourage those we know to not be afraid, to stand up and call it out.
I leave you with this quote from the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:
The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.
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