Unless you actively avoid political news updates, you will be well aware that New Zealand is being run by a wellbeing-driven Government.
Never before have we seen this level of funding injected into our ravaged mental health system, with a particular focus on improving youth wellbeing. This includes initiatives such as extending school-based health services to all public secondary schools and providing 80 mental health professionals in primary and intermediate schools throughout Canterbury.
I am in full support of increasing access to mental health professionals for our young people and New Zealanders in general. However, given we have the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD, and one in five New Zealand teens will experience depression, we need to be thinking more proactively than this. We need to be arming our young people with skills that will boost their wellbeing and resilience to buffer depression.
There are many empirically validated skills that promote resilience and wellbeing. These include forming sustained health habits, living mindfully, managing negative thinking, holding optimism and forming decisions based on your values.
An imperative foundation skill set of resilience is emotion regulation, which describes the process of being aware of your emotional reactions, labelling those emotions accurately and then implementing an appropriate regulation strategy.
In fact, in 2017 Sir Peter Gluckman (Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser), stated that we need to increase the emotional resilience of individuals, family, whānau, and community if we are to effectively respond to our mental health crisis.
Last month, the University of Rochester released research which demonstrated teenagers who can label their negative emotions in precise and nuanced ways are better protected against depression than their peers who can't. For example, teenagers that can state "I feel upset, confused, rejected, let down etc." compared to "I feel bad". This skill of being able to linguistically describe your emotional reactions is called negative emotion differentiation (NED).
How is NED effective? To answer this question we need to understand the evolutionary purpose of emotions. Emotions arise to provide us with critical information to guide our behaviour, usually with survival benefits.
If we were living in caveman times, we might feel fear when a predator approaches in order to spur on a flee response. In 2019, our emotions might not be directly linked to the traditional sense of survival, but they do provide information on what is important to us.
For example, I might feel hopeless if I miss out on a job promotion because the job promotion felt like the answer to my current "life stuckness" and now I am back to ground zero. In contrast, my friend might feel angry if they missed the promotion, as they believe they were the natural selection and therefore had been treated unjustly.
By teaching our young people how to accurately label their emotions, we can also start developing strong regulation associations. As we are all aware, different emotional reactions can require different strategies to calm us. For example:
* When I feel sad I need a hug
* When I feel overwhelmed writing a list and prioritising helps
* When I feel angry playing loud music or going for a run calms me
Once emotions are regulated, we're in a position to use our emotions for the purpose for which they were designed: forming helpful behavioural responses.
Teaching the art of emotion regulation (and NED) to our young people is important because teenage depression can lead to a host of negative outcomes such as interpersonal difficulties, reduced productivity, poor physical health, substance abuse and can predict bouts of depression in later life.
Currently, it is left in the hands of parents or teachers with a personal interest in wellbeing to teach our young people resilience skills. However, that is unfair. Many parents have not been taught these skill sets themselves, and are therefore unable to pass such knowledge on to their children.
If mental health professionals and the Ministry of Education collaborated to form a comprehensive wellbeing curriculum, we would have the opportunity to capture and upskill all New Zealand's youth. We would be supporting the development of our future generation to lead well, healthy and productive lives.
I believe this should be an important focus for our wellbeing-driven Government that has a particular interest in making New Zealand the best country in the world for young people to grow up in.
Jacqui Maguire is a clinical psychologist and managing director of Umbrella Ltd. She works passionately at promoting psychological wellbeing and supporting Kiwis to thrive.
Where to get help:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737