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'If adults criticise the views of the young, they are accused of jeopardising their mental health'

Those who refute talk of a mental-health crisis among the young are accused of callous indifference. But we shouldn't see everything through the lens of psychological harm, says the director of the Institute of Ideas

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I wrote my new book, I Find that Offensive!, to create a serious and considered debate about whether the way we socialise and educate the young is contributing towards the generational fragility that many figures – from President Obama to Louise Richardson, Oxford’s first female vice chancellor – have expressed concern about.

So it’s always good to get feedback. Even two vitriolic articles on the same day is fair game, although perhaps it is a little sad that they were both written by the same person for different publications (one for TES, the other for The Guardian). I expected that a book critiquing (as well as trying to understand) Generation Snowflake would get flak from bureaucrats in the National Union of Students. Nowadays, they seem to be so permanently offended that in the past 12 months they have no-platformed feminist icon Germaine Greer, refused to share a platform with veteran LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell (dubbing him transphobic and racist) and demanded NUS Women’s conference delegates wave their hands in the air instead of clapping, because clapping could trigger distress. But, actually, leading the charge against me was a grown-up, government appointee: none other than former DfE mental-health tsar for schools and a fellow TES columnist, Natasha Devon

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: the thesis of my book is that the main culprits in draining resilience from youngsters are a new class of educational and social-policy experts. It is their therapeutic ideology that is doing the young a tragic disservice, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with uncomfortable ideas on campus, never mind the challenges of real life. 

'Nasty accusation'

Apparently, arguments like mine make Devon’s “skin crawl”; she accuses me of beating “into submission” millennials’ “passion…for a more caring world” and “telling children with mental health problems that they’re ‘namby-pamby’”, concluding that I “lack any kind of compassion, humanity or common sense”. All of which seems a bit Mean Girls for a wellbeing consultant…and actually wide of the mark. I won’t refute the smears in detail (although linking me in both articles with “professional troll Katie Hopkins” is a bit much). Instead, I would recommend that you make your own minds up by reading my book (it’s a short, quick read).

However, there are a couple of points that I think are worth dwelling on as they get to the heart of my concerns and seem pertinent to debates that may interest TES readers. 

Devon – who admittedly seems not to have read my book – critiques what she thinks my arguments are by reading between the lines of several newspaper columns that I have written over the past week or so. From these, she lets her imagination run wild, surmising rather fantastically that my ilk believe young people should be “grateful for…adversity” and that my message to the young is: “One day you’ll look back on this time when you were slashing your thigh to ribbons, were taunted daily about your disability or you despised the sight of yourself, and be grateful that it helped you develop a thick skin."

It’s a nasty accusation, and untrue. What are true are my warnings about policy pundits who preach the virtues of being thin-skinned and hypersensitive while depriving schoolchildren of the wherewithal to develop the coping mechanisms and autonomy that will allow them to transcend the everyday vicissitudes of life. There are understandable and universal difficulties of growing up; we shouldn’t allow children to see these as overwhelming. 

Project Fear

Devon says that I believe the increasing numbers of pupils who express “emotional distress are ‘faking it’”. More fantasy. The prologue of my book gives real-life examples of how I know that the opposite is true. One of the main reasons I wrote the book was because I noted the genuine distress shown by many sixth-formers and university students when confronted with images, speech and ideas with which they either disagreed or felt uncomfortable. Such anxieties have been ratcheted up by policies which scaremonger about – and to – the young.

The educational world has had its very own Project Fear operating over the past decade, with schools often used as vehicles to propagandise around a range of public-health and social-policy moral panics, from the overblown threat of sexual abuse and paedophiles around every corner to dire warnings of obesity time bombs, bullying epidemics, sexting tsunamis, and more. And, as such catastrophising goes on, childhood itself is presented as a series of escalating and frightening terrors, which inevitably stirs up generational anxiety. It is this that is chipping away at the young’s mental resilience. 

My concern is the way that contemporary child-rearing and educational trends are creating overprotected, cotton-wool kids, pre-loaded with adults’ safeguarding anxieties by the time they leave school. Dan Jones, the director of counselling and psychological services at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, perceptively talks of many of the students he sees being so used to “extreme parental oversight” that they “seem unable to steer themselves…They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle… they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves".

Gregg Henriques, an American clinical psychologist specialising in depression, suicide and personality disorders, warns in Psychology Today that such pathologising of normal problems can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and does children no favours: “Kids need to build up what I call emotional calluses. Disappointment, stress and frustration are all normal parts of everyday living. They are fine and essential to experience… There are bumps in the road... That is life.”

CBT in every classroom

Devon will undoubtedly dismiss the concerns of the likes of Henriques and Jones, alongside the growing numbers of international psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who are concerned at the ever-more promiscuous use of psychological labelling to describe areas of growing up, as she demands that we “must not give these critics credence”. Whereas I would hope that we would all want to ensure that we can help children to learn the knack of being able to “soothe themselves” and get through their school years without professional intervention, medication or therapy, it is proving not to be the case. Too many therapeutic entrepreneurs seem eager to incite the young to view everything from exam nerves to academic pressure through the lens of psychological harm, and then they always conclude with so-called solutions that involve third-party intervention. A self-serving industry if ever I saw one.

Those of us who refute exaggerated talk of a mental-health crisis among the young are accused of callous indifference. But perhaps there is a mismatch in definitions when we talk about children’s wellbeing, owing to today’s elastic notions of what constitutes psychological distress. A fascinating new research paper by Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, entitled Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, is illuminating in explaining how concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice, “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before,” and that these expanded meanings reflect “an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm”. Haslam worries that by “misrepresenting normal sadness, worry, and fear as mental disorders, the mental-health professions overmedicate (and) exaggerate the population prevalence of disorder”. I fear that Devon, founder of the aptly named Self-Esteem Team, is one such professional.

Astutely, Haslam notes how this trend also threatens to “deflect resources away from more severe conditions”. This danger of relativising serious illness by conflating it with adolescent angst, and encouraging young people to self-diagnose, now threatens provision in the UK as well. I started my working life in the mental-health charity sector, and have witnessed the horrors of depression and psychosis. Mental illness is not a term that professionals bandy about lightly. In truth, however well-intentioned, those experts who fashionably demand cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in every classroom, wellbeing therapists in every school, and popularise a narrative that trauma is a hidden epidemic lurking in every childhood upset, too often distract from discrete, targeted (and costly) child mental-health interventions for those who really need professional help. 

'Over-coddled young minds'

How does all this relate to free speech? In many ways, the tendency for the young to view themselves as psychologically vulnerable and in need of protection from unpleasant challenges can be a barrier to the important educational aim of encouraging open-minded intellectual curiosity. Child psychiatrist Abilash Gopal links over-coddling young minds at home and school to the demands for trigger warnings, safe spaces and other new censorship tools so prevalent in universities. He writes in the Huffington Post of “a parallel between the behaviour and psychological distress I see in the over-parented child and the growing number of college students protesting on campuses with sensitivities and demands that seem disproportionate to reality”.

As editor Ian Dunt explains about attempts to ban Germaine Greer from Cardiff University: “It started just like all the other travesties of this sort, with the dull thud of comparison between offence, psychological damage and warnings of disorder.” Dunt points out that this has been the pattern for years now: “Political disagreement has been increasingly equated with mental trauma in a university culture dominated by a form of therapy-style political discourse.” And it’s true. The language of psychiatry now trips off activists’ tongues in relation to free-speech controversies. Words such as “trauma”, “triggering” and “anxiety disorders” are regularly deployed by safe-spacers to emphasise the awful consequences of speakers, publications, comedians or whatever is deemed to cause offence. 

Devon seems unperturbed by such responses, despite the fact that they feed directly into a “you can’t say that” climate, even arguing in her Guardian article that “defend[ing] free speech is the last refuge of those incapable of self-reflection and fearful of change”. She justifies carving out “safe spaces”, in which anything but echo-chamber views are prohibited, as allowing “those who have been historically silenced…to stick their heads above the proverbial parapet where their voices can be heard”. She should tell that to Tatchell and Greer.

For Devon, if adults dare to criticise the views of the young, they are accused of undermining their self-esteem or even jeopardising their mental health. In turn, her preferred option is to flatter such youthful censoriousness rather than challenge it, commending as “a trait to be admired” the “bravery required to call out attitudes one finds distasteful”. The recent history of calling out distasteful attitudes (by branding opponents as bigots) is exactly what is chilling open discussion at universities and, increasingly, schools.

Respect, rather than plaudits

She is angry with me because I won’t applaud “young people’s passion for a fairer world”, demanding that “young people’s contribution to social commentary should never be undervalued” (my emphasis). Never? Even if wrong-headed, immature, even poisonous? One example I give in the book are some Muslim school students who “called out” the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists as offensive and Islamophobic, while arguing that “9/11 was a Zionist plot”. Should I have bitten my lip and pandered to those young people’s undoubtedly deeply felt sensitivities?  

Every teacher will know that, if you want to be popular with pupils, you could do no better than to fawn over their opinions, tell them how wonderfully insightful and ethical their views are and refrain from ever criticising them. Devon may favour this approach, but I think it’s a patronising con, at children’s expense. It would mean adults abandoning the difficult intergenerational duty of passing on knowledge, setting boundaries for behaviour and the broader task of socialisation. And, anyway, teachers also know how short-termist such a strategy is. If you want respect rather than plaudits, you sometimes have to look pupils in the eye, and – shock, horror – tell them they are wrong or talking rubbish. Anything else is condescending.

Devon, forever insightful about my motives, concludes that what “Fox and others really object to is young people’s right of reply”. Don’t be daft. The book is dedicated to and addresses that generation, precisely to kick-start a debate. The difference is that I refuse to see the young as my ventriloquist puppets. And I acknowledge that, in order for school pupils to be able to grow up as independent, critical thinkers, they need adults who are prepared to challenge the dangerously enfeebling trends of seeking sympathy for hurt feelings and hiding behind “I find that offensive” – precisely so that they can develop their capacity to robustly argue back.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire

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