Leona O'Neill: We urgently need to offer our children hope for a better future

With children reporting high levels of stress, worrying suicide rates among young people and teenagers increasingly seeing their future abroad rather than at home, we really need to take action, writes Leona O'Neill

The happiness and confidence young people feel in their emotional health are at their lowest levels since 2009

STARTLING research released last week revealed that nearly half of young people in Northern Ireland have experienced a mental health problem and that almost 70 per cent of our children say they regularly feel stressed.

The research, conducted by the Prince's Trust, showed that young people fear for their emotional health more than ever before, as worries about the future, money and generally ‘not being good enough' pile up on their generation.

The trust found that 44 per cent of young people in the north have experienced an issue with their mental health. They found 68 per cent of young people here regularly feel stressed and a third go as far as to say they regularly feel hopeless.

Researchers spoke to 2,194 respondents aged 16 to 25 and found that the happiness and confidence young people across the UK feel in their emotional health have dropped to the lowest levels since the study was first commissioned in 2009. As parents, that is something we need to worry about.

I speak to a fair amount of young people through my work as a journalist. I am finding more and more of them seek a life away from Northern Ireland, somewhere they see and feel the promise of opportunity, of a good, well-paid job and of stability.

My own son, just 13, told me last week that he was thinking of going to Germany when he left education. He said he and his friends were talking about it in school, about where they would go 'when they leave'. There was no level of doubt. There was no ‘if', it was ‘when' he would leave.

I sat there looking at him in the passenger seat of my car, my heart breaking at the thought of losing him to another country. But I didn't have the words or the information or concrete facts and figures about jobs and hope to be able to persuade him to stay here at home. Because we have increasingly little to offer our young people.

The research carried out by the Prince's Trust follows on from shocking statistics released by the Mental Health Foundation and the Royal College of Psychiatrists which show that more people in Northern Ireland have died by suicide since the Good Friday Agreement – 4,400 – than the total number of people killed during the Troubles, which was 3,600.

We here in Northern Ireland have a 25 per cent higher rate of mental illness than England and health experts say they are hugely concerned about the worsening mental health crisis here.

In my job I have spoken to many mothers who have lost children to suicide. I have interviewed family after family of young men who were lost to the River Foyle. Or others who lost their precious children – with their entire lives in front of them like a beautiful promise – because they couldn't cope. Last week I spoke to a mother in Belfast who lost two sons to suicide. We can't let this continue.

In response to the mental health crisis affecting young people in the north, a group of young people from The Prince's Trust Team programme in Belfast have created a mental health programme to support their peers.

The group of eight young people created The HOPE programme (Hold on Pain Ends), the first training programme on mental health and suicide awareness/prevention for young people by young people in Northern Ireland, designed by the young people in a way they believe is best suited for their peer group to receive.

The programme, to be run in partnership with PIPs the suicide prevention charity, is being offered to youth groups, schools and colleges throughout Northern Ireland in order to raise much-needed awareness and to reduce the risk of suicide and self-harm, with the young people remaining involved in the delivery and implementation of the project going forward.

This is encouraging and it's a first step towards tackling what has become an epidemic in our corner of the world.

Our young people need support when they are suffering from mental health issues. They need to know someone will be there to listen, someone will take their hand and help them navigate their way out of the darkness.

But we also need prevention measures. We need our young people to be educated on mental health. We need them to learn resilience. And we need our politicians back in Stormont, working for the betterment of Northern Ireland, peddling hope and attracting investment and jobs and building normality and stability. We need strong foundations on which the next generation can grow and thrive.

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