Empowering change from within: why we need to harness the power of therapeutic practices to prepare young people for life.

By Bea Herbert

Sun, Jan 10, 21

A few months ago I asked the groups of 17 year olds I was working with what they thought the world would be like if people were more self aware. There were common themes that emerged. People would be kinder to each other, there would be less conflict, people would be more forgiving. Some suggested there would be less cruelty in the world, less war, a healthier planet and integration between communities with ideological differences.

As I listened to them feedback their reflections, I felt such a sense of hope. They recognised with such clarity, the importance of our relationship with ourselves and could visualise a future where psychological health could affect change not just for individuals and societies, but for the world.

These young people had just started the first module of the States of Mind course, ‘Identity and Self Awareness’. We did a meditation afterwards, where they connected with what was going on in their body, feelings and mind. I do this meditation not only to give them an experience of self awareness but to get a sense of what their relationship to their inner world is like. Some feedback that they feel a sense of calm wash through them, others that they can’t concentrate and get lost in their thoughts. Others feel uncomfortable and have to open their eyes.

I tell them that they just experienced self awareness and that their ability to be with the reality of their inner world is one of the most important skills they can develop in life. These young people are 17 and many of them are learning how to pause and reflect calmly on their inner experience for the first time.

They have learned about the meaning of mental health mainly through social media, often Google, sometimes PowerPoint slides in form time. But rarely have they been given the tools and space to be together and learn how to relate to their inner experience in different ways. They think of mental health as something awkward and surrounded by shame, as so many people do. They have been told that you might have a disorder if you have painful feelings and that it’s a medical issue you talk to doctors about.

What I aim to teach them is that every experience that they have, no matter how painful, is a part of what it means to be human and that the real suffering comes from hiding the reality of their experience from others and leaving it unexplored. After 6 weeks, they come to see the importance of this, as this young person’s reflection shows:

‘There is a lot of pain in accepting the past, but it is still a process that I have to commit to. My history is a part of my whole identity, and in order for me to flourish and grow, I must not neglect parts of myself that I don’t want to be shown.’

The beauty of therapeutic spaces is that they facilitate personal growth. They free us from the judgement we place on our human experiences of emotional pain, help us find meaning and at the same time, expand our awareness of ourselves and others. They help us experience deeper levels of connection, as the more we repress and deny in ourselves, the less discomfort we can tolerate when other people express their pain.

I think it says a lot about our society that we have to sit on waiting lists for months to have conversations about our feelings in medical rooms in hospitals. But I understand why. So many of us never had the experience of safe spaces to be honest about what was going on for us. So many of us feared we would disappoint our parents when we admitted our struggle, or feared the harm we would inflict if we expressed our anger. Or worried that we would be seen differently for expressing what we really thought and felt about ourselves. And every time we did, we hid parts of ourselves further away and shut them off from the image that we thought other people would accept. And so it became harder to understand ourselves, to accept ourselves and to bring the reality of our experience to the world.

It is possible to equip young people with the psychological skills and tools that they need to transform how they relate to themselves, but it requires time, space and compassionate relationships.

Unfortunately these resources are often reserved for when young people access the mental health system at a crisis point and even then, they are often offered medications instead of psychological skills and the opportunity to find meaning.

As a society, we often view therapeutic practice as something that is reserved for when there is something ‘wrong with us’, when we are alone and don’t feel good. But by integrating these skills into our everyday lives, we can have more of an ability to thrive in the world by living in closer alignment with a sense of who we are and what we need.

If we were provided with ways to be with our discomfort, to explore our limiting beliefs, internal fears and understand our coping mechanisms and relationship patterns early in life, we would have an inner navigation system that we could count on when we needed a sense of internal guidance. We could communicate more honestly, understand others more closely and know how to support them when they needed a space to explore their own inner reality. Our bonds between each other would be stronger and we would have more confidence in our ability to make sense of our pain.

For all human beings, deep social connection is a fundamental need. Relationships are therapy as they reflect back to us who we are. As John Macmurray beautifully summarised, ‘We don’t exist without each other.’

As these young people intuitively understood, when we feel connected with our true nature and are aware of ourselves, it has significant consequences for how we live our lives.

In a society that values productivity, outcomes and external measures of worth, we need to flip the coin. We need to not only acknowledge that psychological health is the foundation of individual flourishing and a healthy society but we need to embed these skills into the systems in which young people develop so that it becomes a part of how they learn about themselves.

The investment can bring a lot in return. When we have a healthy sense of who we are and what we are capable of, we are more likely to speak up, to innovate, solve problems and believe we can make a difference to the world around us. We are more likely to ask for help, to collaborate and to grow in the face of life’s obstacles. We are more able to enjoy the everyday and embrace moments of difficulty as opportunities for deeper connection with the people in our lives.

Our education system is currently unable to provide these opportunities. Students and teachers are buckling under the pressure of the examination system.

Young people spend the majority of their free time learning from textbooks and do not have enough opportunities to learn about themselves. The focus on academic attainment as the primary indicator of a successful educational outcome causes young people to internalise the idea that their personal wellbeing is less important than the grades that they achieve. Their individual experience becomes lost among the pressure and as one young person told me they feel that they ‘are all alone in this, together.’

The pressure of achievement in the absence of personal development causes their sense of individual identity to become increasingly split off from the identity that they feel they need to succeed in life. They feel stressed, without the skills they need to cope, they feel fear, without an awareness of how to overcome their limiting beliefs. They voice distrust in the system, feeling unable to express their true experience to teachers for fear of being judged as incompetent.

If the education system cannot provide young people with these skills as they develop, we will continue to see an increase in poor mental health both in young people and in adults, as our psychological development at an early age sets the stage for our experience of ourselves throughout our lives.

In 2021, States of Mind will be launching 2 initiatives to support the education system to bring about change. The first is to launch the States of Mind education programme as an online learning platform, making it accessible to schools outside of our pilot area in Newham. The course has been developed over 3 years with 250 students and focuses on cultivating self awareness, self compassion and an understanding of the psychology behind experiences of personal distress. The online resource provides young people in colleges with the opportunity to use therapeutic resources to self reflect and engage in a process of personal development alongside their academic life. The resources can be used by teachers to facilitate sessions that promote their students personal growth while introducing conversations about mental health in a practical, relational and individualised way.

The second initiative is to design an alternative evaluation framework for the education system, based on the views of students, teachers and parents, to reconsider how schools can better serve the needs of young people. It is a first step that we hope will provide schools with a framework to understand how a more integrated approach to supporting young people’s academic and personal development can be achieved. Young people will lead the process, working alongside researchers from the Institute of Education to develop an evidence based and practical set of guidelines, recommendations and practices for schools.

The practice of supporting young people’s mental health cannot be left only to families, the mental health system or teachers, it requires collaboration and for the voices that have been neglected from the conversation to inform the change that they want to see. Our vision for 2021 is for psychologists, students, families and schools to collaborate more closely to create this change together and to use as our guiding principle that the biggest changes in ourselves and in systems always happen from within.