When I arrived at the BBC this morning there were other, much cooler, vehicles parked outside. Once I’d negotiated the flightpath to the building, I was talking about teenagers, self-harm and confidence. You can listen again here at 1:22:10 or read the Thought below (and you can go and look at the Spitfires and Harriers at Pacific Quay until 2 September).
J.B.Priestley once said that ‘Like its politicians and its war, society has the teenagers it deserves.’ As someone who works with dramatic teenagers, this seems a rather dismissive comment. Not all teenagers are the same, and not all teenagers are a nuisance. Many are creative, caring and concerned about the environment, politics and injustice. Many of the teenagers I know hold beliefs that challenge my cynical middle-age opinions.
But, as is frequently revealed in surveys, lots of young people also struggle with emotional pain and mental illness. A report issued yesterday revealed that of 11000 children surveyed in the UK, 22% of girls and 9% of boys admit to self-harming. If Priestley is right, then what does this tell us about our society? How did we arrive at the place where, for a large number of young people, the only outlet for emotional pain is to inflict physical harm on their own bodies? And what do we need to change about society as proof that these are not acceptable statistics?
From an early age children are encouraged to be whoever they want to be. At the same time we criticise their risk-taking behaviour, we allow them wander alone into an online world of comparison, and we let them down by failing to provide the stability they crave. Teenagers aren’t actually any different from the rest of us. They need community, purpose and encouragement. They need to know that they are loved.
Psalm 139 reminds us that God takes a high view of humanity. The writer states:
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
How many of us, old or young, would be prepared to say confidently that we are fearfully and wonderfully made? I’m not naive enough to think that self-harm will be eradicated by hugging a hoodie, but I’m sure that instilling confidence and a sense of being valued in the next generation is an important part of giving them the best possible chance of proving that they are fearful and wonderful beings.