Child mental health crisis ‘worse than suspected’
The crisis in children’s mental health is far worse than most people suspect and we are in danger of “medicalising childhood” by focussing on symptoms rather than causes, the government’s mental health champion for schools has warned.
Natasha Devon, who has been working in schools for almost a decade delivering mental health and wellbeing classes, said an average of three children in a class were diagnosed with a mental illness, but many more slipped under the radar.
Devon, who founded the Self-Esteem Team, was appointed by the government to look into young people’s mental health and find out what a good school support system looks like. However, she said the government was asking the wrong question.
“The question we should be asking ourselves is what are the emotional and mental health needs of all children and are they being met in our schools?” she said.
She is due to deliver her report to government later this year, and some of it may be uncomfortable reading – in particular her criticism of the academic pressures on young people as a result of the testing regime.
In a speech on Thursday to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents headteachers of independent schools, she said: “Time and time again over recent years young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health.
“At one end of the scale we’ve got four-year-olds being tested, at the other end of the scale we’ve got teenagers leaving school and facing the prospect of leaving university with record amounts of debt. Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”
Devon expressed particular concern about the independent school sector where she said the pressure to achieve is sometimes more rigorous”, but she stressed it was an issue that affected all schools across the board.
The conference was told that though drinking, smoking, drug taking and teenage pregnancy were down among young people, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70% in a generation, admissions to hospital as a result of self-harm have doubled in four years and calls to the counselling service ChildLine about exam stress have tripled.
Devon condemned those who said the younger generation needed to toughen up to deal with the stress of life, and misused words such as ‘character’, ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’, as it implied having a mental illness “is somehow a defect of the individual”.
She added: “We need to ask ourselves what is causing mental health problems in the first place. Because it’s my belief that many of these struggles could be avoided if we get our approach right.
“And if we don’t, we’re giving with one hand and taking away with the other. And we run the risk of medicalising childhood.
“If a child is being bullied and they have symptoms of depression because they are being bullied, what they need is for the bullying to stop. They need to feel safe again. They don’t necessarily need anti-depressants or therapy.”
As well as the fiercely competitive culture in schools, she said the challenges facing young people were exacerbated by the relentless pace of the internet with cyber bullying, advertising, pornography and airbrushed lives. “Being a young person today is harder than it’s ever been,” she said.
Among others addressing the conference, which focussed on good mental health in schools, was Caroline Meyer, an expert on eating disorders at the University of Warwick, who said the latest research showed that girls were at a 30% risk of an eating disorder, while the figure was 14% for boys.
She identified low self-esteem and high levels of perfectionism as key factors, adding: “It’s fine for children to have high standards for themselves. It’s what they do when they don’t meet them that’s the critical thing.
“The number of new students that come to university having always got As and A*s, the first time they get a 2.2 in a piece of coursework, they fall apart. It’s about enabling them to have the resources they need to deal with that lack of success.”