Mr Anthony Guillaumier, Chairperson,
Ms Stephania Dimech Sant, Chief Executive Office,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me start off by thanking and commending the Richmond Foundation for being behind this project.
I am grateful that the Foundation has asked my Office to be a partner in organising this seminar and launch its Youth Mental Health Barometer findings for the year 2021.
Mental health is a topic that we hear about so often these days. There is more consciousness about the direct correlation between mental health and our wellbeing.
The Richmond Foundation has been with us for quite a number of years and needs no introduction. I take the occasion to thank them for their services over all these years and for their enthusiasm to spread their services further and engage deeper into caring for one’s mental health.
Malta has had a Commissioner for Mental Health for more than ten years now. The awareness has been there, and the data collected throughout the years provided the basis for the formulation of the Mental Health Strategy for Malta 2020-2030.
I need not go into the details of the Strategy. Suffices it to say that on general lines it consists of mainstreaming of mental health and wellbeing in all policies and services, moving the focus of care from institutions to the community; moving acute psychiatric care to the acute general hospital setting; supporting rehabilitation through specialised units preferably in the community, and providing long term care in dignified facilities.
Such programmes depend first and foremost on information coming in from specialised quarters, as well as the mandatory continued professional education of all healthcare professionals, as well as incessant education in early detection of signs and symptoms as well as mental health awareness campaigns, that contribute towards the gradual elimination of stigma.
Much focus and attention was being given to the older generations as well as to our very youngest being that they were the most vulnerable. Older children and young adults were not so much in the limelight, possibly because of the fact that at their age they are already independent and can fend for themselves at school and at work.
Through it services however, the Richmond Foundation became aware of this reality and realised how the services available for teenagers and young adults were not meeting their existing needs. What was even more worrying was the fact that data was inexistent for these age groups and this was imperative in order to create evidence-based policy. The Youth Mental Health Barometer is therefore a much-needed databank that will serve as a basis to address this lacuna for both our youth as well as their caregivers and related professionals in the field.
We have to keep in mind that the age group under study, 13-year-olds to mid-20s, are the pillar of our society, both now, and in the future. They mirror a reflection of what we are now as a nation and where we will be in the coming decades. The wellbeing of all our young people is to have a central feature in all of our policies. It is our responsibility to ensure that we put in place the necessary safeguards to allow them to develop without fear. At the same time, we also have to provide them with the necessary tools to grow into emotionally strong adults that can empower themselves even when facing the hardest of situations.
It is a known fact that young people are subject to specific problems as they grow up, develop into adults, study for a career, achieve their objectives in life and mature in their emotions.
This is not an easy period of their lives and we all remember passing through certain difficulties, connected to a thousand and one concerns, both physical, real or imagined, psychological or social when we were growing up.
Not all of us are prepared psychologically for these difficult years. Not all of us have the same environment, or live amongst tolerant and understanding friends or families. Each one of us develops his own ways and means of navigating through. Not all are adequately equipped and unfortunately some end up needing help and attention.
These last two years, because of the restrictions of Covid, were different, and whether we like it or not we have to admit that all strata of society from school children to the elderly were impacted negatively by this pandemic.
I am sorry to say that we have not as yet fully assessed the damage that this pandemic did to our mental health.
It is very opportune that this study, part of an EU funded project, was carried out to study young people’s mental health, prepare educational material for them based on the findings, and eventually, deliver purposely designed training and awareness for the teachers and parents working and living with these young people.
The Richmond Foundation embarked on this project to make data on young people’s mental health available, and have plans to repeat this on a yearly basis to keep track on changes, and identify emerging patterns that will serve as early material for evidence-based policies to be implemented, and for services to be made available the soonest possible.
During this seminar we will be hearing about the findings in this pilot study, and experts in the field will be discussing the challenge youth are facing, what services are needed, the social responsibility, as well as the nexus between mental health and the environment.
I leave the discussion on the findings to our speakers. However, having been given a summary of the main findings in which young people were encouraged to voice their opinion about various aspects of their lives, asked about their school life, the emotions they experience while at school, experience at their place of work, their hobbies, preferred past times, the place internet and video and online games and social media play in their lives, allow me to do some reflections.
They were asked also about their relationships with parents and guardians, and relationships with friends.
The study clearly shows that for our youth, their happiness and wellbeing is directly related to the support received primarily from their families followed by their friends. Family, at least up to now, irrelevant of its composition, is always at the core of a resilient and emotionally strong society. In this regard, we also need to ensure that parents and guardians are provided with means and tools to be able to assure that the teens and young adults in their care feel truly supported and understood.
Another observation that struck me is how much girls, from a very young age, feel hopeless and anxious in what they do, be it work or study. One cannot fail to notice that girls seem to be more compelled to help their family at quite a young age, whilst this need develops in boys at much a later stage. This prompts the questions as to how, possibly unknowingly, we differentiate our teachings and project our expectations between our sons and daughters. This soul searching has to be done both within the family nucleus as well as on a collective level as a society. Being aware of these realities is a first step to start addressing them.
Another important aspect of the study is the role that social media has in the life of our young ones. We have to realise that the internet and eventually social media have been with us for at least two decades. We therefore have to admit that the generation under study do not have an idea of what it is like to live without, unlike their parents and grandparents. Whilst accepting the fact that social media became part and parcel of our lives for all strata of society, be they grandparents or toddlers, learning and studying the impact is of crucial importance for the wellbeing of all. Most especially of the young malleable minds who are concerned of missing out unless they mark their digital presence multiple times a day. I am concerned that the stark majority of respondents would rely on social media for support or to seek advice for their issues. It is an important realisation. It is also a collective responsibility of all to ensure that social media content is truthful and not promoting distorted realities, false facts and fake news just because clicks pay.
The study also reveals the importance of promoting youth support services in all fields. Whilst one understands that young people might feel embarrassed to come forward, we need to assure them and make it amply visible that help exists and ir readily available out there. It is very striking how an overwhelming majority experience or perceive that they are effected by anxiety. Somehow we need to assure our young people that it is ok not to be ok at all times. We are the ones that need to tell them that the fictious perfection perceived through their socials and favourite reality shows is not a true reflection of life. I worry when I learn that there are young people who have a pessimistic outlook about their future.
We need to assure them that they are not alone. That difficult times are party and parcel of a full and lived life and that organisations like Richmond Foundation and others are out there to provide them with the tools to overcome such insecurities and to have enough confidence in their abilities to build a better future on both a personal and professional level.
Interesting findings about which I am sure we will be given more information this morning, are those about the incidence of anxiety, sadness, depression, anger, difficulty to sleep and loneliness experienced by these young people. Equally interesting are the findings about those who found it difficult to find who to have recourse to, or those that did not want anyone to know about what they were going through. The issue of fear of repercussion, stigma, judgement and discrimination were prominent in the answers given by the respondents to this survey.
What to me seems lacking in this survey are those questions asking these young people what measures they resorted to, to get over these difficulties, and what role did partying drinking, alcohol, smoking or making use of so called recreational drugs play in these circumstances.
Let me conclude by once again congratulating the Richmond Foundation for this initiative and hope that this focussing on the mental health situation of our youth will remain high on the agenda of the Foundation.
Wherever we can, my Office will always be willing to help.