The Potential of Creative Media to Address Adolescent Mental Health Issues Associated with the Coming of Age

Science and Technology

As a social construct, coming of age occurs throughout adolescence, marking a
young person’s transition from child to adult and hence achieving self-actualisation and self-realisation. The search for self-actualisation and self-realisation is conducted blindly; we find ourselves as adolescents suffering an incomprehensible series of apparently random preferences, revulsions, divagations and evasions. At the time we do not know why our feelings drift hither and yonder on the waves of inexplicable compulsions, griefs, and admirations: it is only later that we may be prepared to acknowledge them. During this process of achieving self-actualisation and self-realisation, often comes the feeling of alienation. Many adolescents experience this, and it is often a trigger for mental health problems.

According to Green, Meltzer and Goodman in 2005, 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, yet 70% of these children and adolescents have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. Teaching adolescents that the feelings associated with growing up are normal, and should not be regarded as negative, may have the potential to address adolescent mental health issues and help provide appropriate interventions at an early age. This can be achieved through encouraging the study of coming of age as portrayed through creative media, which can depict the journey of self-actualisation and self-realisation. It also provides a literal example of the coming of age of the studied artist, as they adopt their given style over time. To find a personal style is, for an artist (be that a poet, writer, film-maker, painter) to become an adult. The search for a style parallels the individual’s psychological search for identity.

For instance, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ by J.D. Salinger (1951) is an example of a Bildungsroman, a literary genre focusing on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, from youth to adulthood. Analysis of the title alone highlights the book’s potential as a form of creative media that could be used to address adolescent mental health issues associated with the coming of age. The title of the novel explains Holden and his attitudes towards growing up. Reference to the title is first seen in chapter 16 and 22. In Chapter 16, Holden hears a kid singing the Robert Burns poem ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye.’ The boy’s singing makes Holden feel less depressed than he had been feeling as the ‘kid was swell’ and ‘his parents paid no attention to him’, representing innocence and youth, unspoiled by adult immorality. A reference to the title re-appears in chapter 22 when Phoebe corrects Holden that it is ‘if a body meets a body’ rather than ‘catch a body.’

Use of Burns’ poem and the word ‘catch’ is interesting. Burns’ poem essentially asks the question, ‘is casual sex okay?’. This is ironic as in the novel, Holden cannot have sexual relations with anyone he cares about for two reasons. First, he believes having sex with a girl is to degrade her or treat her like an object. Second, he is afraid to get too close to anyone to protect himself from hurt. As a result of these feelings, Holden turns towards casual sex as his only option. However, this also makes him feel uncomfortable: ‘The trouble was, I just didn’t want to do it. I felt more depressed than sexy, if you want to know the truth.’ Holden’s solution is therefore to avoid sex all together and interact with young, innocent children, some of whom happen to be ironically singing songs about casual sex.

‘Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.’ Holden uses the cliff as a symbol for progression into the adult world, saying that he wants to prevent children from entering into this cruel and ugly world, including knowledge of sex. Yet with further irony, Robert Burns’ poem that inspired Holden to be the ‘the catcher in the rye’ isn’t about preserving childhood innocence; it is in fact all about sex.

Interestingly, the significance of the title, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ is highlighted by the fact that an Israeli translator attempted to change it. But Salinger took him to court, insisting the original title be used. Studying the significance of the title alone, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ is an excellent starting point for addressing the issues faced during the coming of age. By addressing adolescent ignorance, the fear of falling from innocence (e.g. sexually) and disgust for the phoniness of the adult world, many teenagers can relate to this novel when growing up. It is also important to acknowledge that whilst the specific location of Holden as he tells the story is ambiguous, it is clear that he is undergoing psychiatric treatment in a mental hospital or sanatorium. Therefore, this novel further has the potential to address mental health issues associated with the coming of age.

By addressing adolescent ignorance, the fear of falling from innocence (e.g. sexually) and disgust for the phoniness of the adult world, many teenagers can relate to this novel when growing up.

Moving away from literature into the art world, Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) paintings particularly demonstrate the potential for artwork, as a form of creative media, to address the issues associated with coming of age. ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’ ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ These quotations by Picasso beautifully depict the fear of coming of age, often associated with a loss of imagination and creativity. Interestingly, it is as though Picasso’s work goes against this, reversing the normal trajectory associated with the coming of age. For example, his earlier work, the melancholy Blue Period (1901-1904), is reflective, often depicting death, redemption and pain, as symbolised by the colour blue. It was thinking about the death of Carles Casagemas, a friend of Picasso’s, that gave genesis to this period, hence ‘The Death of Casagemas’ (1901) is an excellent example of Picasso’s earlier work. Casagemas shot himself as a result of a failed romance, and this painting depicts the pain Picasso felt following the loss of his friend. This painting also addresses the power of love and the suffering that can result, often a fear associated with the coming of age.

‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’

In contrast to Picasso’s earlier paintings during the Blue Period, the year 1932 saw Picasso painting his most explicitly sexual work, fuelled by his affair with his muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter. 80% of the 300 works created by Picasso in that prolific year represent the female form. Le Rêve is one such painting showing Marie-Thérèse Walter resting in an armchair during an afternoon in mid-January. Facing us, the young woman is sleeping, her morality saved. Whilst in profile view, the two red lines which represented her lips in frontal view, draw a tongue licking the left part of her face, a  particularly sexual image. The painting also shows the character’s hands re-joining at the intersection between her legs, forming a triangle, a typical symbol of feminine anatomy. In addition, her left breast is half uncovered, something more sensual than a total nude. The erect penis in the upturned face of the model presumably symbolises Picasso’s. Could this painting represent a sexual dream of Picasso’s?

Adolescence is a period for the onset of behaviours and conditions that not only affect health at that time but also lead to adulthood disorders. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), many mental health disorders emerge in mid to late adolescence and contribute to the existing burden of disease among young people and in later life. A literature review by Kessler et al. in 2007 found that more than 50% of adult mental health disorders have their onset before the age of 18 years. Furthermore, Gore et al. found that globally, neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of years lost due to disability among 10- to 24-year olds, accounting for 45% of years lost because of disabilities.

Despite this high prevalence of mental health issues, 75% of young people with mental health problems are not receiving treatment; the average wait for effective treatment is 10 years. Just 6% of UK health research spending goes on mental health and despite the majority of mental illness starting during adolescence, less than 30% of this money is focused on young people. As a result, opportunities to help adolescents are often missed until ‘crisis’ is reached, thus leading to self-harm, dropping out of education and suicidal, violent or aggressive behaviour.

75% of young people with mental health problems are not receiving treatment

Evidently, creative media, such as literature and artwork (exemplified here by J.D. Salinger and Pablo Picasso), has great potential to address adolescent mental health issues associated with the coming of age and hence the journey to self-actualisation and self-realisation. Teaching adolescents that these feelings associated with growing up are normal and should not be regarded as negative may reduce feelings of alienation and thus potentially address adolescent mental health issues, ensuring appropriate interventions are provided at an early age. Looking to the future, incorporating the compulsory study of creative media into the school curriculum, for example, could really help tackle the current teenage mental-health crisis.

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