Most stress was good for children and years of ‘bubble-wrapping’ them did more harm than good, Canadian psychiatrist and renowned expert in adolescent mental health, Stan Kutcher, warned.
“For 15 years, we have been teaching kids that stress is bad for them and the truth is that it’s the complete opposite,” he told Times of Malta. “Most stress is good. It is a brain signal that there is either an opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of or a challenge that needs to be overcome.”
Prof. Kutcher added that toxic stress affected only a tiny amount of the population, such as people suffering severe abuse and those living in horrible poverty or warzones.
“We now have a whole generation of teenagers who think that if they feel stressed they have a disorder. They don’t,” he insisted.
This was leading several young people to buying or using products they think would help them deal with stress but, since they did not feel better, they resorted to buying something else, entering into a vicious circle.
“In reality, we’ve known since the time before Christ that stress is very necessary for human growth and resilience. But young people have ended up without the skills they need to be able to deal with stress and they are having a hard time functioning,” Prof. Kutcher pointed out.
Over the past 20 years he has noticed a “humongous difference” in students enrolling at university, in that they do not have the same writing, cognitive and knowledge skills as students of two decades ago.
Parents were bubble-wrapping children or hovering around them like helicopters to make sure everything was perfect for them. This led to a situation where 30 per cent of young Canadians attending their first job interview were accompanied by their mother.
“We do young people a tremendous disservice by trying to protect them from everyday normal stress in life,” he added, noting that the prevalence of disorders remained the same over the past years though self-reported distress increased. This was causing discrimination with the most vulnerable, who were not able to access health services because of the huge demand.
A former director of the World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centre in Mental Health Policy and Training at Dalhousie University, Prof. Kutcher is in Malta on the initiative of the Maltese Association of Psychiatry.
He is training 25 teachers, child psychologists and counsellors on how to increase mental health literacy among adolescents and teachers.
Psychiatry trainee Emma Saliba said the association hoped that, in collaboration with the health and education authorities, mental health literacy would be introduced in the school curriculum and taught like any other subject.
The evidence-based mental health and high school curriculum guide has already been adapted by 13 other countries.
During such classes, students learn about the human brain, mental disorders, how to differentiate between a disorder and a life challenge, treatment, skills to improve their own mental health and where to seek support, among other things.
Evaluation in countries that adopted the curriculum, indicated that stigma decreased, help-seeking improved, mental health outcomes were better for students and teachers and there was earlier identification and treatment of mental disorders in adolescents.
Teachers also recorded less sick leave and their knowledge of mental health increased from 40 to 80%.