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David Coleman’s visit to University of Limerick: young people, mental health and the role of empathy in a changing world

Psychologist and broadcaster David Coleman held a talk about young people, mental health and social media during World’s Mental Health Day in the University of Limerick.

Parents, teenagers and students welcomed in the Jean Monnet Theatre the best-selling author who educated and entertained the audience with activities and talks that focused on the worryingly increasing levels of anxiety, stress and depression in younger generations.

Mr Coleman started his discourse explaining that our mental wellbeing is affected by thoughts, physical status, behaviour and feelings at the same time, and that these factors can be altered when we move from one environment to the other.

He also shared with his public some research findings that link the intensive use of social media to a more negative body image, depression and lack of good-quality sleep.

“Parents don’t read to their children before going to bed anymore”, he explained. The excessive exposure to our devices tends to make us more dissatisfied with our own lives, more conditioned by what other people think of us, and even “terrified of being left out” from a WhatsApp or a Facebook group.

Brid Rush, Maeve Lynch and Valerie Clohessy presenting David with artwork made by pupils St Augustine School

Parents, however, are sometimes struggling to be a good example for their children. With a simple activity he showed to the audience that we always tend to do what others are doing, rather than what they tell us to do. “If as a parent we are anxious, that means that we have been role modelling a lot of anxiety behaviours”, he explains. Therefore, if the parents are very anxious, it is very likely that their children will suffer from anxiety too.

Quoting “The Opposite of Worry” by Lawrence J. Cohen, Mr Coleman invited the audience to become the “calm second chicken”: if a chicken gets scared he paralyses, and if a second chicken passing by gets scared as well, both chickens will be frozen for a longer period of time. However, if the second chicken doesn’t show signs of fear or tension, the first chicken will immediately “unfreeze”.

“The second chicken that comes into the picture has a huge influence on the first chicken’s behaviour. We tend to say a lot of reassuring things to our friends, like ‘you’ll be fine, it’ll all work out, you’ll be grand’, but at no point we give to the person that is anxious any sense that we ourselves are coping well with the situation. But if we can show that we are not scared, this makes it easier for the person overcome their anxiety”, Mr Coleman explained.

John Downey, lead volunteer and branch director of Limerick and Tipperary Samaritans, Claire Flynn, Manager of Limerick Mental Health Association, and John McElhinney, Area Development Officer Limerick, Tipperary and Clare, with David Coleman

He then went on to discuss the effects that locking our feelings inside ourselves might have, and the fundamental role of empathy in helping who is around us. Some people have the tendency to keep their emotions for themselves, to the point that they are not even able to distinguish and identify their feelings anymore. “Imagine shame, fear, frustration, sadness all having different colours. When they come into our inner world, they mix together and turn into a murky emotional muck, and it becomes very hard to discern what your true feelings are”.

When trying to support someone emotionally, our role – as parents or friends – is to open the door, and to “sieve through the mess that comes out”, helping other people to identify the different feelings and eventually process them in a healthy way.

“Whether is with our friends or kids, we need to offer empathy in certain situations, we need to show them that we may understand what they’re feeling. When somebody comes to us and tell us about their problems, most times they don’t actually want us to fix the problem. What we want to try and do is to show interest, show that we care about them, and that’s all”, he explained.

At the end of his talk, Mr Coleman answered to some of his audience’s questions, mostly about children and their exposure to social media; he suggested to avoid introducing children to social media altogether before secondary school.

Limerick Voice asked Mr Coleman how young adults and students that are no longer subjected to their parents’ supervision should balance their social media use, to which he advised to “organise a 24/48 hours or weekly detox, going somewhere deliberately without your phone, and see if the fact that you don’t have access to your phone gives you anxiety; if it does, then you have a problem, and you need to do something about it”.

He concluded saying “it’s not what we do on social media, but the addictive nature of them that is problematic”.

Find out more on David Coleman’s website here

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