A royal panic about children’s mental health

Last Sunday was Father’s Day in the UK, and Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, took a break from celebrating the joys of family life to warn us about the state of our children’s mental health. Father’s Day was also, he wrote in an article for the Sunday Express, ‘a time to reflect on my responsibility to look after not just the physical health of my two children, but to treat their mental needs as just as important a priority’.

His wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, shares a similar sentiment. During her stint guest editing the Huffington Post last year, she wrote that children’s mental health is ‘every bit as important as their physical health’. But Will and Kate’s concern is no revelation. The royals’ demand for what policymakers call a ‘parity of esteem’ for physical and mental health is part of a very contemporary, albeit maddening, obsession.

‘A fifth of children will have a mental-health issue by their 11th birthday. And, left unresolved, those mental-health issues can alter the course of a child’s life forever’, the prince tells us. But all is not as gloomy as he would have us believe. The figures are real enough, but many of the maladies included are not really serious mental-health problems. We are not talking, for the most part, about schizophrenia or clinical depression. It is emotional, behavioural and so-called conduct disorders that are being diagnosed in increasing numbers.

The expansion of the diagnosis (and self-diagnosis) of mental-health problems in children and young adults marks a dangerous shift. Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, has argued that this is part of a wider phenomenon whereby kids are being encouraged to feel anxious and vulnerable about pretty much everything. We have raised ‘Generation Snowflake’, she argues, by promoting a culture of self-esteem in schools that enfeebles young people and encourages them to interpret normal emotions as signs of mental illness. 

Indeed, even Natasha Devon, the former government children’s mental-health tsar, admitted that the current definitions of some mental illnesses ‘sound a lot like being a teenager’. But, according to Devon, this blurring of the boundaries between the normal and the abnormal is ‘something to celebrate’, in that it allows children to speak out about their problems. ‘Teaching children to suck it up and soldier on’, she says, is a form of ‘emotional inauthenticity’.

This is worrying. Children’s emotional lives are being colonised, their healthy emotions recast as forms of mental illness, at the very same time that child and adolescent mental-health services are starved of resources. The consequence of all of this is healthy children being stopped from growing into capable adults and mentally ill children being denied the help they so desperately need.

The real crisis here is among adults, not children. We are projecting a contemporary obsession with mental-health on to children, and coddling them as a result. It is as if we can no longer discern the emotional ups and downs that are part and parcel of growing up from serious mental-health problems that require expert help. This confusion is now so widespread, it’s even affected our supposedly stiff-upper-lipped royals.

Dave Clements is a writer, public servant and convenor of the Institute of Ideas Social Policy Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @daveclementsltd. Visit his website here.

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