Role kindness plays in good mental health
By Michelle Robinson

Kindness costs nothing.  Being kind to someone, or having someone show you kindness, gives you that warm glow, and a study has shown that kindness is also good for our mental health.

Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation has commissioned a study called “Kind Communities – A Bridge to Youth Mental Wellness”.  This surveyed 3,000 young Americans aged 15 to 24 about how relationships, their environment, and the presence or absence of kindness in the communities in which they live affect their mental wellbeing.

The Year of Kindness

The Born This Way Foundation has declared 2017 the Year of Kindness.  The basis for this is the fact that how we treat each other impacts strongly on how we feel about ourselves, and each other.  Treating others well, and having them treat us well in return, builds stronger and healthier communities.  This promotes better mental health.

The foundation wanted to carry out the study to raise awareness about mental health among parents, policy makers, educators, and of course, the young people themselves. They hope that it will help to start the conversation about the things that impact on mental wellbeing in everyday life.

Key findings from the study were:

Kindness matters

The young people who described their school, college, or workplace as kind places were more likely to be mentally healthy.  79% of students who described their high school as a kind environment had the highest mental health scores, whereas only 12% of those with low mental health scores said their high school was a kind place to be.

Peer support networks are important.  Young people tend to rely on a group of close friends for support.

Access to mental health resources is key

Young people with access to mental health resources and information report better mental health.  If they have the knowledge and skills to look after their own mental health, they feel empowered and more inclined to help a friend or family member who is in crisis.

Adequate provision of resources is a problem, however.  Young people do think that mental health is a priority, and 57% of the survey respondents said that their mental health was very important to them, but they often can’t access support or resources.

Young people need to talk

36% of high school students said that mental health isn’t discussed in the classroom.  29% of young workers said that they weren’t sure if their workplace health insurance plan included provision for mental illness.  This helps to explain why 54% of young people say they never, or very rarely, talk about their mental health.

Young people do feel able to talk to their parents about important issues.  However they feel that their parents might not necessarily understand what’s going on with them emotionally.  The study found that parents overestimate how likely their child is to talk to them about difficult or delicate issues.  Parents also often underestimate the extent to which stress plays a part in their children’s lives.

We need to pay attention to young people’s mental health

The study’s findings remind us that although there are no easy solutions to dealing with the issues around mental health, there are things we can do to improve the mental health of our young people.  This starts with building kinder communities that strive to understand mental illness.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada say that 1 in 5 people experience a mental health problem each year.  However only 1 in 3 will seek help.  It can be as few as 1 in 4 among young people suffering from a mental health issue.  The need for improvements in children and young people’s mental health services is essential.  70% of adults with mental illness report that their symptoms started in childhood.  Young black people and young people in the LGBT communities are much more likely to fall victim to substance abuse or commit suicide.  They are significantly under-represented in mental health and treatment services.

Investing in young people’s mental health is investing in the future

The symptoms of so many mental illnesses start in childhood or adolescence.  It’s therefore essential that adequate resources are allocated to the provision of mental health services for young people.  There are many more life options for young people nowadays, but there are also many more stressors.  It’s everyone’s job to create mutually supportive and understanding communities.  This enables young people to grow up healthy, well-rounded, and with a real chance of fulfilling their potential.  That is not a privilege, it’s a right.

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