Education

Children have never had it so good

At a time when youngsters are healthier and wealthier than ever, why are some hellbent on depicting them as mentally ill?

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.

The eagerness to report an increase in mental illness in young people represents a projection of adults’ concerns and preoccupations on to children. Interviewed in response to the launch of MindFull, Lucie Russell of the YoungMinds charity said: ‘Children and young people are growing up in a toxic climate. They exist in a 24/7 online world where they never switch off, where cyberbullying, consumerism and pornography, sexting and the pressure to have the perfect body bombard them daily, where any exam grade below a “C” means failure and employment prospects are bleak.’ This doom-laden view of society is surely enough to make anyone depressed.

In truth, 2013 is a good time to be a child. An Office for National Statistics meta-survey of children’s wellbeing published in April tells a far more positive story than the myriad mental-health charities. It suggests that just over a third of children aged 10 to 15 are completely happy with every aspect of their lives; 96 per cent are relatively happy with their friends; and 95 per cent are relatively happy with their families. Incredibly, 75 per cent were even relatively happy with their appearance! Certainly it is the case that, in general, children today are healthier and benefit from a higher material standard of living than any previous generation.

Instead of celebrating these incredibly positive statistics, we have a crusade waged against an imaginary epidemic of mental illness among children. Campaigners’ proposals to introduce lessons in wellbeing into the school curriculum and to promote an awareness of mental-health at every available opportunity risk being counterproductive. Such practices would encourage children to interpret the normal ups and downs of growing up through a prism of mental health. Whereas an earlier generation may have retreated to a darkened room to share their pain with Morrissey, emerging days later with no recollection of what had caused their grief, kids today are encouraged to spill all in online forums and to school counsellors. With a newly acquired label for their syndrome, their current mental-health status becomes the defining feature of their identity – and therefore far more difficult to shake off when whatever caused the mood-change passes.

There is no doubt that a small proportion of children really do suffer from serious mental illness. While teachers and counsellors are eager to find mental-health problems everywhere and treat every minor worry as potentially leading to a suicidal thought, there is a danger that these children who do need help could get overlooked in the stampede. Teenagers badly need the adults in their lives to be able to keep a sense of perspective about issues they face, apply a degree of common sense to children’s worries, and separate out real problems from things that aren’t worth dwelling upon. When adults lose this sense of perspective, then children’s growing-up becomes more difficult.

A school curriculum focused on knowledge about the world, where teachers see their role as passing on to a younger generation the best that has been thought and said, can move children outside of their own introspection and encourage them to take a broader view of the society they live in. Encouraging children to dwell on the minutiae of their feelings at any one time has the opposite effect. Being taught new knowledge in an engaging way can be inspiring and exciting for children. This is what teachers should be left to do.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

comments powered by Disqus