Building sustainable mental toughness in young people

Why is there a mental health crisis?

Modern life offers little opportunity to think about the things that make us happy for their own sake. Bombarded by content from the internet, school, work and the media, our social groups are larger than ever but we spend more time alone. Social networking adds weight to the idea that our own life will never be quite enough - the illusion that other people might be having a happier, more fulfilling time than us is incredibly damaging to self-esteem and long-term mental health. The trick is to re-programme thought processes by encouraging the brain to seek that which is positive and using our strengths to build a solution-focused approach.

How do we change track?

Positive Psychology was pioneered by Dr Martin Seligman with his PERMA Model for building mental toughness:

  • Positive emotions – feeling good
  • Engagement – being completely absorbed in activities
  • Relationships – being authentically connected to others
  • Meaning – purposeful existence
  • Achievement – a sense of accomplishment and success

This was later developed (by Seligman and Christopher Peterson) into The Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) Handbook (2004) and Values in Action website.  

Their goal was the same as that laid out by the Scottish Government in its Mental Health Strategy: 2017-2027. That is, to build individuals and communities who can flourish and achieve high levels of life satisfaction by focusing on their own strengths.

In youth work, we often speak to participants about their individual character strengths but don’t always use that as a way to connect them to the wider community or society as a whole. By connecting the strengths above to the six underlying virtues in the CSV Handbook (Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, Transcendence), we can begin to show our young people the health benefits of engaging with the community around them.

A word of caution: Positive Psychology approaches should be used alongside, not instead of, other models. There is enormous value in understanding the effects of, for example. Adverse Childhood Experiences, Attachment Disorder, poverty or addiction. Using Positive Psychology is not about ignoring the significant challenges and pressures of our world but rather, shifting our perspective in a way that allows us to cherish what is valuable and meaningful.

Positive Psychology Exercises for Young People

Honest, Useful, Kind Feedback

In groups of six to twelve, this is a lovely way to let young people see themselves from a different perspective:

  • Write everyone’s name on a large piece of paper
  • Leave Post-It notes and pens around the room
  • Encourage the group to write ONE THING about every other individual in the room – the only limitation is what they say must pass the test of being honest, useful and kind
  • Stick comments next to the name of the person
  • Collect in your comments
  • Depending on the group, discuss people’s thoughts about their feedback or have them create a background to display their Post-Its so they can take them home.
  • The goal is to pass opinions through the “honest, useful, kind” filter before voicing them in future.

Catastrophe Planning

Useful when a young person discloses a worry to you:

  • Acknowledge the importance of the concern and the need to reflect on it
  • Ask the young person to describe the worst case scenario
  • Do the same for the best case scenario
  • Work together to clarify which is more likely to happen
  • Put into perspective with other things that are going on their life and in the wider community
  • Discuss/ write a plan of action, if required.
  • Remind them that: helplessness damages a person, while mastery strengthens them.

Random Acts of Kindness

Have groups carry out three acts of kindness that will increase someone else’s happiness. This website is a fantastic place if you are stuck for ideas.

Good Stuff Hunting Challenge

Every day for a month, either write down, send in a message to yourself or blog about three things that made you feel good that day.

Human brains are social problem-solvers and exercising them in these ways will build strength in the areas of relationship development and perceived wellbeing, leading to a long-term ability to bounce back from adverse life circumstances.

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