The young are particularly distressed by Brexit - how should the rest of us respond?

We need to listen to young people's fears, and make sure the services are there that they need too.

Nihara Krause
13 July 2016

Image: Flickr/David Mican. Some rights reserved.

Half of voters aged 18 to 24 cried or felt like crying when they heard that the UK had voted to leave the EU, recent research by the LSE has found. Having spent much of my working life treating young people who are emotionally affected by events they cannot control, I am not surprised.

What I find more unsettling is the hostility of some of the reactions to the news which ridiculed young people for being “hysterical”, “crybabies” or “angst-ridden teenies”. Such phrases reveal a worrying tendency in our society to both dismiss the views of young people as worthless, and to belittle the seriousness of their emotional and mental well-being. It’s a tendency that contributes to the stigma around mental illness, which in turn is one of the causes of our failure to invest in prevention or to provide adequate mental health services for vulnerable young people.  

Around one in ten children and young people between the ages of five and 16 experiences significant mental health problems, and numbers are increasing. Yet waiting times for specialist treatment are so dangerously long that nine in ten GPs fear that children in their care could come to harm while waiting. The uncertainty around the futures of the 55,000 NHS staff who come from the EU is a further threat to services that are already patchy.

It is vital that we do not lose sight of the impact of current events on young people. Of course the causes of their mental health problems are many and various, and are commonly rooted in concerns about family, school, and friendships. Yet these immediate personal worries cannot be separated from events in the outside world, and are often intensified by them.  A teenager who is worried about their parents’ job stability and their own employment prospects for example is likely to be further unsettled by news of economic uncertainty.  

Many young people are evidently experiencing feelings of grief and anger following the vote.  Others are jubilant and genuinely excited about a brighter future for their country.  And those too young to participate in the referendum are generally angry about being denied a say, with an NUS survey showing that 76% of 16 and 17 year olds stating they would have voted.

For adults in contact with young people distressed by current events, my advice is to keep lines of communication open and offer practical strategies on dealing with change. Creating a sense of security is fundamental to managing anxiety, so making sure there is both positive and negative information at hand and encouraging less worry time are important.

Ultimately, the LSE’s research is cause for optimism. I am frequently impressed by how positively and strongly young people know what they believe in and about what they want for their future. Their compassion and passionate engagement with the world, as well as the inclusive opinions they have and their commitment to expressing them is inspiring.

It is important now that we harness their enthusiasm. I hope the strength of feeling sparked by the referendum will inspire more young people to get involved in public life, and prompt the Government to lower the voting age to 16. However, listening to teenagers, and treating them with dignity and respect, particularly when they are unhappy, is the responsibility of all of us, not just politicians.

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