Feeling boxed in? It’s okay to be sad

Dr Stella Chan, a lecturer in clinical psychology, says teenagers need to realise that sad feelings are normal, and they don’t last forever

Susan Ramsay |

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We need to remember that feelings change, says Dr Stella W.Y. Chan, who was born in Hong Kong and is now a lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Edinburgh. “No one is happy all the time. Our feelings change all the time. If we can remember this, when we have a bad time, we will understand that it won’t be like that forever.”

Chan had just returned to Scotland from Hong Kong, where the recent spate of student suicides worry professionals, parents, and young people alike. While adults ponder the problem and ways to help, Young Post caught up with Chan in Edinburgh to ask her what teenagers can do when those awful feelings of helplessness and despair become so strong they cannot see a way out.

Surprisingly she does not take a stick to the education system. “It’s not one thing,” she says, of factors that can lead to teenagers killing themselves. “It’s a number of things.”

Under the “not helping” list, she says that mental health issues are usually hidden away and thought of as abnormal. “We need to show young people that we are with them. Mental health is everyone’s issue,” she says. Apart from removing the stigma attached to mental illness, she says there are positive things teens can do to avert tragedy.

“First,” she says, “they need to know before they get to that point, that there is a way out. The feelings they are experiencing will not last forever. Just as people are happy sometimes, at other times they feel sad and overwhelmed.

“But,” she cautions, “once it gets to the stage where they can’t see there is a way out, it might be almost impossible to think about the fact that their feelings are just feelings, and will change if they could just wait a little bit.”

Keep things in perspective

She said people experiencing these kinds of severe emotions struggle to put things in perspective. She grabs a handy napkin from the restaurant table. “If I fold this up,” she says, folding it over and over, “and I hold it up in front of my eye, that is all I can see.”

She puts the napkin to her eye to show that her vision is indeed overwhelmed by the small piece of tissue. “I can’t see anything else, and I think that this is everything.”

Then she moves her hand away, to show how small the napkin really is compared to the busy restaurant. She says teens need to see that what they are going through is a small part of a much bigger picture.

Chan also says that teenagers experience such a lot of emotion because it is a critical stage in their lives, when they are beginning to form their self-identity. “It’s when they begin to ask ‘who am I?’”

And the answer is reflected in many ways that might not be helpful.

In the past, she says, teenagers had an emotional break from school. When they left school each afternoon, that would be the end of, say, an argument with a classmate. But today, there is Facebook and other forms of social media which can extend problems and negative feelings. , past what would be usual.

“The kind of pressure teens feel is real,” she says, stressing that it is important to build resilience before things get too bad.

Resilience is a word we hear a lot. It means being strong enough to withstand something bad. There are ways to do this, Chan says.

We need to think about sadness, and understand that it is normal. It’s part of life. People have good days and bad days. We need to normalise it.

Reach out to family and community

Chan says it’s very important for parents to reform the bond with their children. But, “it’s not the parents’ fault”, she stresses. “We look after ourselves the way we were looked after. We need to spend time with our family, grandmother, grandfather.”

She adds: “Kids love novelty.” Give them an iPad and they will seem to love it, but “what they really need is time with their parents – quality time. This is a basic emotional need”.

As a community, Hong Kong needs to think together how it can best provide more support for families. Chan mentions the meagre maternity leave and the workaholic attitude of employees.

She also believes that Hong Kong’s obsession with education is not necessary. “You don’t need to learn everything now,” she suggests. “You don’t have to be able to play the piano now, you can learn it later.”

She leaves us with one very important piece of advice: “Be kind to yourself.”

She likens our internal monologue as a talk between friends. “If your friend was sad, you would give them a hug to cheer them up. But if we are sad, we criticise ourselves and tell ourselves to do better,” she says.

“Self-criticism is an issue we all face,” she adds. “Give yourself a hug, take care of yourself.”

Young Post's trip to Scotland was kindly facilitated by the British Council.