Tracing the tears of a teen

A staggering 17 per cent of girls and 8 per cent of boys attempt suicide, revealed the Samaritans this week. Teenage angst, it seems, is no joke. Emma Cook explains why growing up is hard to do

AMY, 17 years old, is no stranger to teenage angst. It's part of her culture and her territory; her favourite pop band is Radiohead. She also loves Suede, David Bowie and The Smiths. Her favourite authors are Camus, Sartre, Amis and Ian Banks.

Last year, though, her misery amounted to more than a heartfelt empathy with Radiohead's Creep. She began to find her school environment unbearable; it was too competitive and pressurised. While studying for her GCSEs at a private school in West London, Amy nose-dived into severe depression. "I felt isolated. If you're in a high-achieving environment you can have a complete lack of confidence. There's a lot of pressure to succeed. I also found myself constantly questioning; why am I here? What's the point of it all? It's still something that's a part of me." Her GP prescribed antidepressants. Like so many adolescents, her despair sprung from conflict; a need to be accepted by a peer group but also to feel different and unique from them. She says, "A lot of girls my age are like clones - shopping at Kookai or Top Shop... It's been hard for me to find a niche for myself and feel accepted. It's particularly difficult when so many people of my age are so materialistic."

In North London, Kate, also 17, talks about her close friend Nick; how he'd phone her up in the middle of the night in floods of tears, feeling unable to cope. "It was very frightening. His girlfriend had finished with him and he thought it was the end of the world." He started taking his mother's Prozac. These stories aren't particularly shocking or unique - Amy and Kate, both fairly privileged middle-class girls, were the first two girls I spoke to about their experience of adolescence - between them they had a store of anecdotes; what friends of friends had suffered, suicide attempts, anorexia or just a general malaise that seems to define a certain stage of early adulthood. "Most girls I know have been through what I call their 'Slyvia Plath stage'", says Amy in an unmistakably been-there- done-it-all tone.

It's difficult to know if Amy and Kate's experiences are part of the general landscape of adolescence in the Nineties where depression is more widespread - or whether their generation is just more equipped to talk about it. What we do know is that these sorts of problems are on the increase. According to a recent survey of nearly 17,000 schoolchildren, published by the Samaritans, some 17 per cent of girls and 8 per cent of boys aged between 13 and 25 said they had made a suicide attempt. And just under half had once felt that there was no point in living. We also know that suicide is already Britain's second biggest killer of young people after road accidents. In 1995, 19 per cent of deaths in the 15-24 year old group were suicides, with 738 young people killing themselves.

According to The Mental Health Foundation, young adolescents (aged 14 to 15) are three times more likely to have emotional disorders than children aged 10 to 11 years. Their symptoms can include eating disorders, sleep difficulties, aggression, depression, school phobia and obsessions.

Peter Wilson, child psychotherapist and director of the mental health charity Young Minds feels that these symptoms are, in part, a response to growing up in the Nineties. "We do seem to be living in an extraordinarily fast-moving, fast-changing society because of technology. The majority of people are dealing with this because it is the challenge of our times. But the more vulnerable kids do feel more outplaced by this, especially in the bleaker parts of the country where there really is no employment. Adults are less sure about their future of their jobs and relationships. This sets up degrees of anxiety for the teenager."

Regardless of social changes, adolescence is also one of the great equalisers, cutting across class, gender and time. Which is why Harry Enfield's "Kevin- the-teenager" gained immediate, universal currency. Sabotaged by hormones, plagued with insecurities about self-image, the teenager's suffering is defined, more than anything else, by contradiction. As Amy says, "You want to have the freedoms and liberties, like going out late and being naughty, but you don't want, in all honesty, everything that goes with it - like the mundanities of doing the washing up." Desperately in need of boundaries, you also need to break the rules. Another contradiction, she says, is the sense of "Complete insecurity combined with arrogance. People are self-obsessed, they think of themselves constantly. Yet you're plagued with worries like, 'Am I spotty? Am I ugly? Will I ever have sex?'" Emily, 14, adds, "I just seem to spend my whole time waiting; waiting for things to happen; to be able to wear nice clothes, to be allowed to stay out late like my older brother, to wear a proper bra. I feel like I've been 14 forever."

In the past and in other cultures some of the physical changes were at least recognised through established rites of passage. These days, though, the transition from child to adult is more likely to be viewed by adults as an inevitable fait accompli precipitated by tenacious youth marketing and the Spice Girls. Because so many young people look much older than their years and display greater levels of sophistication - in the eyes of an older generation at least - it's easy to presume that adolescence is a state of mind that's really only skin-deep.

Two years ago, Dan, 18 and about to start university, was extremely unhappy when he moved schools but felt he wasn't taken that seriously. "If you've got an illness at least there are physical symptoms. You can see it - that makes it easier to understand. If you're young and depressed no-one knows exactly what's wrong with you. I seemed confident but I became more and more insecure; I was terrified about leaving home, failing my exams, disappointing my parents, not having a girlfriend; all those things mounted up. My parents just didn't know how to deal with me."

Because angst and self-doubt is to teenage culture what, say, romance is to Hollywood cinema, it can be an area that adults sometimes find rather hard to treat as genuine. The older we get, the more we tend to assume that real anxiety and trauma is part and parcel of increased responsibility - mortgages, messy relationships, work stress and ageing parents. Since teenagers are so mercifully free of such worries, what on earth, we wonder, have they really got to be so miserable about? Many adults also feel that teenagers have never had it so good; in consumer terms at least, many of them have got more choice and spending power than ever before. But as Christine Griffin, a senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of Birmingham, says this doesn't count for much. "There's a lot of media targeting of young people and there is a pressure to consume. One of the big differences in the Nineties is that there's a huge rhetoric of freedom and choice: it's all post-racist, post-sexist and wonderfully liberal. But most young people's lives don't reflect that freedom or choice."

Even though critics have been sniffy about Nick Hornby's latest novel, About a Boy, at least he attempts to address some of these issues, and through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. If nothing else, the story gives a fairly realistic picture of how easy it is, as adults, to overlook the depth of a teenager's feelings and to underestimate their maturity. As Amy says, with rather more insight than the average adult, "It would be really unnatural not to go through adolescence without one suicidal thought - even if it's just an intellectual one. Everyone has to ask, 'What's the point?' and 'Is it all futile?' I think it's just something you have to do when you're coming to terms with your own identity." know how to deal with me."

Because angst and self-doubt is to teenage culture what, say, romance is to Hollywood cinema, it can be an area that adults sometimes find rather hard to treat as genuine. The older we get, the more we tend to assume that real anxiety and trauma is part and parcel of increased responsibility - mortgages, messy relationships, work stress and ageing parents. Since teenagers are so mercifully free of such worries, what on earth, we wonder, have they really got to be so miserable about? Many adults also feel that teenagers have never had it so good; in consumer terms at least, many of them have got more choice and spending power than ever before. But as Christine Griffin, a senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of Birmingham, says this doesn't count for much. "There's a lot of media targeting of young people and there is a pressure to consume. One of the big differences in the Nineties is that there's a huge rhetoric of freedom and choice: it's all post-racist, post-sexist and wonderfully liberal. But most young people's lives don't reflect that freedom or choice."

Even though critics have been sniffy about Nick Hornby's latest novel, About a Boy, at least he attempts to address some of these issues, and through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. If nothing else, the story gives a fairly realistic picture of how easy it is, as adults, to overlook the depth of a teenager's feelings and to underestimate their maturity. As Amy says, with rather more insight than the average adult, "It would be really unnatural not to go through adolescence without one suicidal thought - even if it's just an intellectual one. Everyone has to ask, 'What's the point?' and 'Is it all futile?' I think it's just something you have to do when you're coming to terms with your own identity."

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