In the field of mental health, a recurring problem is the difficulty in knowing the true extent of the prevalence of mental distress – terminology, definitions and statistics often confuse rather than illuminate the issue. This week it was the turn of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) to contribute to this confusion.
According to the NAHT, one fifth of primary-school children have a mental-health problem. The NAHT claims that this not only causes problems in the present, but will, if left untreated, put children at increased risk of developing psychiatric problems later in life. With two thirds of primary schools saying they cannot deal with their pupils’ mental-health problems, the NAHT has called for more input from specialist mental-health services.
There does indeed appear to be a rise in childhood and adolescent mental distress. For example, over the past 10 years, inpatient admissions due to self-harm for people under 25 have increased from 22,555 in 2000-01 to 37,932 in 2010-11, an increase of 68 per cent. According to the 2007 Adult Psychiatry Morbidity in England report, the number of those reporting self-harm at some point in their lives increased from 2.4 per cent in 2000 to 3.8 per cent in 2007. Among women, this increase was concentrated in the youngest age group, with 6.5 per cent of women aged 16-24 reporting self-harm in 2000 compared with 11.7 per cent in 2007 (it then drops to under four per cent for the 25-35 age-group).
According to Lucie Russell of the mental-health charity Young Minds, ‘these shocking statistics should act as a wake-up call to everyone who cares about the welfare of young people. More and more children and young people are using self-harm as a mechanism to cope with the pressures of life and this just isn’t acceptable.’ For Catherine Roche, chief executive of the mental-health charity Place2Be, a key reason for this is that children ‘faced all sorts of challenges, such as coping with parental separation, the illness or death of a loved one, and dealing with substance abuse and domestic violence’. In response, the government has pledged £1.4 billion to improve mental-health services.
Roche is certainly correct, but then again children have always faced such issues – it hardly works as an explanation. And while there are those who talk about the unique problems of the current age, such as 24/7 social media, every new generation has had to deal with marked changes in society and advances in technology since the dawn of modernity. Are today’s children really facing more severe challenges than those growing up in postwar Britain?