Sweet Distress sets out to give us a roadmap for improving the mental health of our children -“ and leaves us wishing we'd read it before we gave birth or started teaching. A bit like my first reading of Carol Dweck's work, it leaves me wondering: is it too late to apply the book's message with a 14- or 16-year-old? Or has the damage already been done?
Having set aside this negative and gloomy response, there is much to commend in Gillian Bridge's work. It helps that I had already read her previous book, The Significance Delusion, which is longer and more research-based and to which she makes frequent reference. Sweet Distress is lighter and rather an easier read: short, to the point and entertaining despite its serious subject matter.
Ending each topic-focused chapter with a section on -˜what to do next' makes it a great self-help book, although it isn't ourselves that we are being exhorted to help, but rather the young who are in our care, whether we are parents or teachers. Much of the advice makes a lot of sense, and I find it hard to disagree with Bridge's key thesis: we have bred a generation of navel-gazers who believe the world revolves around them because their parents, carers and teachers have, on the whole, led them to believe this. References to peer-reviewed and reputable research findings underpin our faith in what Bridge is saying. As adults, if we model desired behaviour with calm and balanced responses to our own problems, young people will understand how not to overreact.
Bridge addresses something I have spoken about in several assemblies in recent years: the pressure in Western societies to feel happy is itself making us less happy. And helpfully she gives examples of ways in which we can reduce the stress involved in trying to be happy!
Perhaps -˜a sense of perspective' is the strongest message I take from the book, because it is a message that I repeat regularly to parents, students and teachers alike. Not all sadness is mental illness; most of it is the normal swings of hormones or a completely natural response to a genuinely sad situation. Most of it does not need the intervention of professionals, just the common-sense support of parents and teachers. Encouraging a distracting activity instead of indulging in a long conversation about how they are feeling, is usually a better response for anyone, not just for children.
You could be forgiven for thinking there's nothing new here. Maybe there isn't, but how many of us really believe the messages? Gillian presents them in a way which is persuasive and compelling and I hope this gives them more traction. We certainly need something to turn the tide on mental health messaging.
The book is funny and witty (and even uses rude words!), so it is easy to pick up and follow. The best compliment I can pay Gillian is that, while reading it, I wanted to write in the margins, make notes to myself and stick them up around my office so that I can remember to do that thing the next time I'm in front of a class or giving an assembly.