Last week campaigners launched MindFull, a charity providing 11- to 17-year-olds in the UK with ‘support, information and advice about mental health and emotional wellbeing’, primarily through online counselling, but also through work in schools. Much media coverage has focused upon the charity’s demand that every school in Britain should offer children timetabled lessons in mental health.
What lies behind the establishment of MindFull is a perception that ‘epidemic’ numbers of children are suffering from mental-health problems. The charity’s founder, Emma-Jane Cross, claims ‘thousands’ of young people are ‘teetering on the brink’ of serious mental illness, risking ‘terrible long-term effects’ for both individuals and the rest of society. MindFull declares that ‘one in five children have symptoms of depression, and almost a third (32 per cent) have thought about or attempted suicide before they were 16’.
This is the latest in a long line of recent high-profile reports suggesting an epidemic of mental illness in young people. In 2010, the National Union of Students in Scotland published Silently Stressed, which noted ‘soaring’ rates of mental ill-health among university students. Things hadn’t improved by the time of their follow-up report, Breaking the Silence, a couple of years later. The UK-based charity Comic Relief reports an astonishing 70 per cent increase in anxiety and depression rates among young people over the past 25 years.
In these various reports, there is little consistency in the definition of either mental illness or youth. Some charities define mental illness as encompassing everything from mild anxiety to full-blown schizophrenia. While some focus on children up to the age of 17, others define ‘young people’ as anyone under the age of 25. The confusion that arises through eliding different types of data is all too obvious in MindFull’s claim that almost a third of children have thought about or attempted suicide. There is a world of difference between thinking about something and actually trying to carry it out. We don’t even know how those surveyed have interpreted the question on whether they ever ‘thought about suicide’; are they referring to their own suicide or suicide in the abstract? Again, the difference is enormous.
The MindFull statistics are based on an online survey of 2,090 people aged 16 to 25 who were asked to self-report on their experiences before they reached the age of 16, as well as their current ‘status’. Anyone who has been through adolescence will be aware of what an excruciatingly awful time it can be. For many young people, introspection about their identity and place in society combines with extreme self-consciousness – all at a time when biology also conspires against them. The lack of experience of the world, which is a defining feature of childhood, can result in a loss of perspective; fairly mundane concerns can easily get blown out of all proportion. In this context, a certain amount of anxiety, depression and self-obsession is normal. Perhaps the surprise in the MindFull statistics is that only one-in-five of the adult respondents report having experienced symptoms of depression.