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Miriam Donohoe: Our teenagers are crying out for help. We have to start listening

IRELAND'S young people are crying out for help. But is anyone listening? We have become so obsessed with the financial crisis, and adjusting to the era of austerity, that perhaps we have forgotten what is really important. The next generation.

Our young people are suffering, with alarming evidence that more and more are attempting suicide, self-harming, and abusing drugs and alcohol. The country is on the brink of a youth crisis and we need to pay attention now.

The first three days of the annual teachers' conferences were dominated by talk of pay and conditions and Croke Park II.

But a lot of the discussion over coffees and at the water-coolers on the fringes was about the welfare of students, many of whom are seriously struggling.

Teachers at the ASTI conference reported a big rise in the numbers of teenagers harming and attempting suicide over the last two years.

One teacher said there were five attempted suicides in her fee-paying school among senior-cycle students in the last 18 months.

A teacher from a large, mixed urban school said that since Christmas, there had been seven attempted suicides among junior-cycle boys and girls.

Teachers spoke of students self-harming, by cutting in some cases and pulling out their hair in others. These students, they said, were unable to put their problems into words.

Concern was also expressed among teachers about drug and alcohol abuse. While drugs were once about getting 'high', they were now being used as a coping mechanism.

A survey published yesterday found that binge drinking was a big problem among secondary school students.

One in six fifth- and sixth-year pupils have either injured themselves or somebody else when drinking, the study by UCD psychologists found. And one-fifth of all students suffered from moderate to very severe levels of depression, with excessive drinking increasing the risk of depressive symptoms.

There are constant reminders that all is not well with our young people. In the last year, there was a spate of heart-breaking cases of students taking their own lives. Ciara Pugsley (15) from Leitrim killed herself after being bullied on the internet.

Shannon Gallagher (15) from Donegal, took her own life just seven weeks after her 13-year-old sister Erin committed suicide, because she simply could not cope with the loss.

A Young Social Innovators conference in Dublin last month attended by students from 28 schools in Munster and Leinster identified suicide as one of the issues facing them.

While it is adults and parents who have lost jobs, houses and high-flying lifestyles due to the recession, we must not forget that there has been an impact on our young people too. It is also a frightening time for them.

They are seeing their parents' relationships breaking down, with marriages affected by financial pressure.

They are being presented with very little hope about the future and are told they will probably have to go abroad after school with jobs so scarce here. They are also having to deal with all the normal adolescent pressures, such as how they look and how they are judged by their peers.

They have the pressure too of seeing their parents excel in the Celtic Tiger era and possibly feel a sense of failure that they might not follow them.

We need to start listening to our young people and watch out for signs of unhappiness and being unable to cope.

Teachers can only do so much and very often don't have the resources to back them up. Of course, lots of our young people are well able to deal with what life throws their way.

But we have to work on developing a more confident generation who will emerge from our schools and colleges with the belief that they can take on Ireland and the world.

It is time to be more vigilant about those falling through the cracks, perhaps growing up in families that have had their lives turned upside down by this country's rapid shift from boom to bust.

What started out as a financial crisis has the potential to become a massive social crisis pretty quickly if we do not look out for our young people and their needs and demands.

The next generation needs looking after now. Let's start listening.

Irish Independent