Adolescence and youth are unique and formative times that challenge young people to learn to manage a wide range of emotions.
During such process of personal development, it can be quite common to experience various types of emotional distress. However, while most youth overcome such obstacles, some struggle more than others to cope with keeping emotionally healthy.
According to the World Health Organization (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health), an estimated 10-20% of young people globally experience persistent or severe symptoms that affect how they feel, think or act, meeting criteria for a lifetime mental disorder.
These youths can be challenged by anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, frustration or anger, social withdrawal and self-harm, just to name a few. Some are also at a greater risk due to their living conditions, stigma, discrimination or exclusion, or lack of access to quality support and services.
Often these conditions remain underdiagnosed and undertreated.
The consequences of not successfully addressing youth mental health conditions extend to the adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.
Nowadays, issues like body image concerns and cyberbullying have further increased vulnerability and undoubtedly the COVID-19 crisis is having a huge impact on young people mental health even with the partial re-opening of economy and social interactions.
Not only the pandemic had an effect on existing mental conditions, but it has also been estimated that, only in the UK, hundreds of thousands of adolescents who had no diagnosed mental health problems before the pandemic will need care and support as a consequence of the crisis.
The worsening of mental health can be attributed to disruptions to access to mental health services, the wide-ranging impacts of school closures, and a labour market crisis that is disproportionately affecting young people.
School closures have had significant implications for the mental health of young people as schools are not just places where students develop and progress their academic skills. The shift to remote learning has resulted in an erosion of many protective factors that attending school offers, including daily routines, social contact, social and emotional support from teachers, sense of belonging to a community, and access to physical exercise. While many young people have been able to maintain connection with peers through digital means, the loss of in-person interaction resulting from school closures could have long-term negative consequences for mental health.
The impacts of school closures are disproportionately falling on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. While schools quickly turned to remote learning, wide disparities continue to exist in access to internet and digital devices, as well as to a quiet place to study, all prerequisites for online learning.
Young people are being disproportionately affected by the labour market impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, which could have significant mental health consequences as long-term unemployment is a risk factor for poor mental health throughout the life course.
Young workers generally hold less secure jobs and make up a large proportion of jobs in customer-facing industries such as accommodation, tourism, and food services – the sectors strongly affected by the crisis – while also often being the first to be dismissed as they tend to have shorter tenure and less company-specific skill.
Training pathways that help connect young people to work such as internships, apprenticeships, and temporary work have also often been suspended by struggling companies, placing additional pressures on the school-to-work transition. Joblessness has also resulted in significant income losses, resulting in financial insecurity, another risk factor for poor mental health. These pressures have also affected students, such as those reliant on part-time work to fund their education and living costs.
Mental health promotion and prevention interventions aim to strengthen an individual's capacity to regulate emotions, enhance alternatives to risk-taking behaviours, build resilience for difficult situations and adversities, and promote supportive social environments and social networks.
Taking this into consideration, now more than ever expanding availability of mental health services for young people is an immediate priority, as well as embedding mental health support in educational and workplace settings and in the social protection system.
WE RESTART strongly advocates the principle that supporting young people's mental health needs to be part of a interdisciplinary policy response to preserve youngsters' mental well-being in their vulnerable stage of life, and in particular to tackle the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.
Although the arts can't be, and don't have the ambition to be a front-line health service, it's getting increasingly clear how they can function very effectively in a complimentary role. Many studies in the last decades have proven the connection between artistic engagement and enhancement or healing of mental and emotional injuries, not only in the process of making art but also when experiencing art as an observer of the creative efforts of others.
In particular, the therapeutic role that art can play on minds and souls of audiences has been investigated in the illuminating book Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong (2013). This study highlights that "like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacity beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties". It is in relation to our psychological frailties that the arts find their purposes and values as tools, offering a means of assistance exhorting and consoling their observers, guiding and enabling them to become better versions of themselves.
Among the psychological frailties identified by the authors, a few in particular apply to mental weaknesses that can be experienced by adolescents and youngsters, shedding a light on how the arts can be an additional tool that can, and should be used, to correct or compensate for young people mental fragility:
· Art as a PURVEYOR OF HOPE: Too often, youngsters suffer from unnecessary stress and performance anxiety because of the conviction that "talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by lack of skill, but by absence of hope". The arts are able to perform the function of concentrating the hope we need to chart a path through the difficulties of life, refocusing our attention on a set of fragile qualities associated with hope, like creativity, imagination, faith, naivety and playfulness.
· Art as a BALANCING AGENT: At a young age it is very common to be unbalanced and lose sight of our best sides, with the consequence that emotions can severely incline in one direction or another. Art has a role in rebalancing us emotionally, putting us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing feelings and therefore restoring a measure of equilibrium. “Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness”.
· Art as a GUIDE TO SELF-KNOWLEDGE: As human beings, we are hard to get to know. Often, we feel we are mysterious to ourselves and therefore not good at explaining who we are to others. This feeling is particularly exacerbated at a young age, when we struggle to recognize who we really are with the result of feeling alien to the others and also to ourselves. But when we are exposed to some forms of art, sometimes it seems they can latch on to something we can feel but have never been able to recognize clearly. “Art builds up self-knowledge and has this ability to help us identify what is central to ourselves, but hard to put into words. Much that is human is not readily available in language”.
· Art as a guide to EXTENSION OF EXPERIENCE: The most difficult task we are asked to fulfil when we are young is growing. "Growth occurs when we discover how to remain authentically ourselves in the presence of potentially threatening things. Maturity is the possession of coping skills: we can take in our strides things that previously would have knocked us off course. We are less fragile, less easily shocked and hence more capable of engaging with situations as they really are". The world of art can provoke, tease and push us to awake the important parts of ourselves. "Art is an immensely sophisticated accumulation of experiences of others, presented to us in well-shaped and well-organized forms. It can provide us with some of the most eloquent instances of the voices of other cultures, so that an engagement with artworks stretches our notions of ourselves and our world. At first, much of art seems merely 'other', but we discover that it can contain ideas and attitudes that we can make our own in ways that enrich us".
· Art as a RE-SENSITIZATION TOOL: In this day and age, adolescents and young people are increasingly desensitized by the virtual and commercially dominated world they live in. As a consequence, they often end up dissatisfied and struggle to appreciate what they have and are, constantly yearning for "the imagined attractions of elsewhere". "Art can do the opposite of glamourizing the unattainable...Art is one resource that can lead us back to a more accurate assessment of what is valuable by working against habit and inviting us to recalibrate what we admire and love...Art peels away our shell and saves us from our spoilt, habitual disregard for what is around us". Through art we recover our sensitivity.
In the attempt to use art to address individual and social issues, theatre and the entire environment that gravitates around its creative production can be considered a special tool as its value lies in the idea of "play".
Playing make-believe is the instinctive way children use to explore themselves and who they can possibly be. Theatre, with the rich range of its forms and the many languages with which it speaks to the imagination, can be defined as a complex adult form of playfulness. Theatre has a special power to speak to people because people instinctively recognize the human needs of playing, making stories and telling stories. These are essential parts of our personal and cultural development and universally used to explore who we are and what makes us human.
Theatre naturally connects with people because theatre imitates life, and life imitates theatre. The Canadian sociologist Erwin Goffmann, in his most famous book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), develops his dramaturgical analysis, where he observes a connections between the kinds of acts that people put on in their daily life and theatrical performances. As individuals in our communities, we perform as social actors.
Growing up as individuals entails learning to create our roles as healthy social actors and making daily choices about how positively play those roles through our social interactions. In such regard, exploring theatre environment can offer a privileged point of view as, among the arts, theatre at its very core is collaborative and a proper shared-responsibility model. Unlike painting a masterpiece or carving a sculpture, a piece of theatre does not come from the mind of a single creator, but from a group of people working toward a common goal. Each of the individual involved in this process contributes uniquely to the final product and even if some of these contributions are more hidden (producers, stage managers and technicians), they are no less important to the creative whole.
Becoming emotionally and mentally healthy adults requires that we develop the ability to interact inside a community and at the same time to have built a sense of who we are and act accordingly. Tal Sanders, Assistant Professor at Pacific University, in his paper Theatre - A Collaborative Art (2020), clearly explains how the collective efforts essential to produce a theatrical work can be consider an invaluable aid in such regards: "When working within a group, we must navigate differences of opinion, entertain varying perspectives, and rise to the challenge of maintaining clear communication. Learning to listen is an important skill in this scenario. Being clear in thought, exact in language, and deliberate in choice of illustrative examples can be key to success. Theatre artists must learn the difference between giving up on our ideas when a strong voice is advocating for something different and defending our views to the point that we become an obstacle to consensus. I have found when artists listen closely and truly attempt to understand one another they are often able to find solutions that incorporate and even enhance seemingly disparate ideas. In theatre we must channel our ideas in support of the direction in which the entire production is moving. Falling silent when you have a solution or shutting down when your ideas cannot be incorporated does a disservice to the entire production. A skilled collaborator will find an appropriate opportunity and use a productive tone to offer their opinions".
WE RESTART, accordingly to its core mission of producing and promoting artistic projects where art functions as a tool of personal or collective resilience, recovery or reconstruction of identity, wants to give its contribution to improve and support young people mental health through WE RESTART ON STAGE.