We live in a brand new world where change occurs at such rapid paces that it can make our head spin. Our way of life has been impacted immensely through smart devices, social media and advances in technology, which have changed how we do day to day life. With all of these changes we’ve also seen a change in society’s mental health and wellbeing, unfortunately in the negative direction. No group has been impacted harder than our youth.
A recent press release by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, showed that rates of mental health issues have climbed drastically in the last decade. The worst hit was teenage girls, with 57% of teenage girls reporting themselves as feeling persistently sad or hopeless, which represents a 60% increase in the last decade.
Why are teenagers experiencing such sadness and hopelessness?
I don’t have all the answers and there are indeed many factors at play, however I want to explore an old fairy tale to pull out some deep rooted lessons that if we apply, would make a difference. That fairy tale is Sleeping Beauty, and it dates back many centuries ago. What can a children’s bedtime story teach us about mental health in the modern age and how we can better assist our youth? A lot it seems.
Sleeping Beauty begins with a king and a queen who are described as old and have always dreamed of having a child. This isn’t just a dream but something they have longed for, for a very long time but haven’t been able to achieve. They have been unhappy and it’s almost as if having the child will bring them happiness. Then one day their dream comes true and they are blessed with a beautiful baby girl and it indeed makes them extremely happy! It makes them so happy that they throw a party and invite everyone from the kingdom to attend to join in the celebrations with them.
Or do they?
The king & queens fatal mistake was that they left one person off the invite list, Maleficent, the evil fairy.
Why would they deliberately not invite Maleficent? She represents evil and chaos in the world and a parent’s natural instinct is to protect their children from such things. This is even more prevalent in parents who have children at an older age as the king and queen did. As humans we have a timeframe for which we can conceive children, so as we get older, knowing that we could not have further children if we wanted, places a lot of pressure on older parents to get it right and often leads them towards over protection. We are seeing the average age of people getting married increasing, alongside the average age of people having children increasing. We are also seeing many people only having one child now. It seems that a lot of modern-day parents are quite comparable to the king and queen.
So, did they make the right decision by not inviting Maleficent?
Chaos and evil are inevitable in the world. You can’t have what is good and pure without having it’s opposite which is evil. Every child at some point is going to come into contact with this reality. The king and queen didn’t invite Maleficent but she showed up anyway, and because she was excluded she wasn’t very happy about it! What does she do? She curses the princess and declares that she will prick her finger on a spindle at age 16 and drop dead. Luckily one of the other fairies was able to soften the blow by ensuring that instead of dying the princess would fall into a deep sleep for 100 years at this point. What this is showing us is the reality that evil, darkness, chaos, whatever your word for it is, will always show up. It’s the Taoist concept of yin and yang in full effect, that good and evil balance each other out. The question we must ask ourselves as either parents or teachers, is what do we do when the first sign of chaos turns up?
Enter fatal flaw number two committed by the king. The king was obviously distraught at what Maleficent had done. Knowing that at age 16 his beautiful daughter was potentially going to prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep where she would be lost for 100 years. So, what does he do? He has every spindle and sharp pointed thing in the kingdom destroyed and sends his daughter to live in the woods with 3 good fairies. His response to the reality of chaos in the world is to do everything in his power to ensure that his daughter is never exposed to any form of harm or danger. He shelters and isolates her from the entire world.
What is the effect on Sleeping Beauty being so sheltered and insulated?
She grows into a teenage girl that is as naïve as they come, who falls in love with the first man that she ever meets, who rides past just before her 16th birthday and this encounter sends her into such distress that it nearly kills her. It is at this point the fairies tell her she is a princess and the plans for her future. She is faced by such great and overwhelming potentiality for her life after having never being exposed to any difficulty or challenge in her life that she is completely overcome. Enter the spindle which represents the wheel of fate, ever turning that inevitably pricks us all, which when she encounters sends her into the only state that can keep her safe, unconciousness.
What is the importance and take aways from this? Sleeping Beauty is basically suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after falling in love with a guy she met for 5 seconds who then rides off, in her mind never to be seen again and when faced with this trauma all she wants is to be unconscious and never wake up. Why does she have no ability to deal with trauma? She was insulated and protected from any speck of chaos or darkness in the world by her parents her entire life.
We are seeing first hand now this taking place in reality. Keeping in mind there are those who do suffer unimaginable trauma as children, but what we are exploring is those who come from seemingly great families and backgrounds who are mentally very ill. It is because there is a level of over protection and insulation where the response to dealing with the dark things of the world is to prevent children from ever encountering them. Take the example of participation trophies. We have made everyone a winner, where everyone gets a prize so that no one encounters losing, which is an inevitable part of life. We are insulating youth from a problem rather than teaching and showing them how to deal with and work through the problem.
Is it any wonder that we are seeing so many youths responding to the challenges of life by wishing they could be unconscious? Does this explain the tendency for youth to numb themselves with drugs, alcohol, pornography, self harm? When we are not equipped to deal with a challenge, the easiest thing to do is to switch off.
How does Sleeping Beauty awake from her state of unconsciousness? A shallow and patriarchal interpretation of the story would say it is the prince, or a man that snaps her out of it. If you look deeper at what the prince represents however, it is the masculine traits that exist inside her own consciousness already, of courage, boldness and forward-thinking vision. To escape the trap of despair and to overcome the inevitable darkness in the world, we need to be able to see forward and to walk towards something with boldness and courage. How do we develop boldness and courage? By overcoming trials and tribulations. By meeting face to face with the chaos and unpredictability of the world and learning to deal with it rather than hide from it.
So what is that we can learn from the age old fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty? Quite a lot.
If we want to improve the mental health of our youth, we need to show them how to face and overcome the darkness in the world. We need to develop and build their boldness, courage and resilience. We need to give them the tools to cope with their problems and not just remove the problems for them.
I remember hearing one time that when the engine light in your car comes on, you have two options; get out of your car, find and fix the problem, or unplug the light. We know that unplugging the light solves nothing, other than making you believe there is no problem, but like in Sleeping Beauty, the wheel of fate will always show up and come back to bite you. Let us be a people that encourages the next generation to navigate through their challenges with confidence and resilience rather than avoiding them.