A new and comprehensive government-sponsored study undertaken by University College London and the University of Liverpool has revealed a quarter of girls and one in 10 boys exhibit symptoms of depression by the age of 14, representing a doubling in prevalence over 10 years. To the majority of parents and teachers, this will come as no surprise. However, after years of having evidence from education professionals dismissed as "anecdotal" by policymakers, it is helpful to have some solid statistical analysis to support the notion that poor mental health in young people is increasing at a dramatic rate.
Of course, experts will speculate that there is a difference between having a mental illness and exhibiting symptoms of one and they are absolutely right. My understanding is that while a person can have at least a proclivity toward the former regardless of their lifestyle, the latter is almost always a direct result of environment. This knowledge makes the evidence from UCL even more compelling, in that it naturally leads us to the question of what it is about the worlds that young people inhabit that causes such high levels of psychological distress.
The report enjoyed a great deal of media coverage and there was the inevitable blustering on social media about how previous generations didn’t have smartphones, new trainers or flat screen TVs, but instead were sent up chimneys and went to war. Incredulity was expressed that British teenagers, who live in relative comfort and affluence, could have "anything to complain about".
Mental health warning
Firstly, the idea that all young people in the UK are enjoying an unprecedented level of financial wealth is somewhat misguided. The Social Mobility Commission 2016 report reveals there are currently 2.3 million children who would be officially classified as "poor". These numbers are set to rise by 23 per cent by 2020, with experts at the University of Oxford warning that Britain, while having the fifth largest economy in the world, is nevertheless in danger of becoming "permanently divided", with children’s prospects dictated almost entirely by the circumstances of their birth.
There is, according to research used by Mental Health First Aid England, evidence showing a direct link between economic deprivation and poor mental health. Even if that wasn’t the case, however, wealth doesn’t automatically ensure happiness. In fact, historian Yuval Noah Harari states that incidents of suicide tripled in South Korea after the country became "westernised". There is, he hypothesises in his book Homo Deus, danger in the imbibing of capitalist rhetoric which promises us happiness based on obtaining and consuming.
Indeed, Russell Brand’s latest book, Recovery, is based on the exact same hypothesis, speculating that addiction in a multitude of forms is the natural conclusion of a culture that persuades us from our infancy that we aren’t good enough and need to consume in order to rectify this. Put this in the context of today’s young people, the vast majority of whom have a smartphone beaming toxic messages directly into their consciousness at any time of day or night and its little wonder they’re suffering from a sense of existential angst.
This is not, however, to make the same mistake Jeremy Hunt did when challenged by former shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger in the Commons on the issue of young people’s mental health and to blame the entire phenomenon on social media. To do so conveniently absolves the government of any responsibility to take action, other than some vague "awareness-raising" initiatives.
Changes to blame
Aside from the urgent issue of child poverty, recent changes to the education system are, in my opinion, also to blame. I was aghast when, last week over lunch at a conference, some primary school heads showed me the marking criteria for Year 6 Sats. The most ludicrous among these was a ruling stating that children were not "secondary-ready" if the dots in their inverted commas were slightly above the letter, which ended the previous word, or if the comma was at the "wrong" angle. That’s regardless of whether the sentence they’d written showed insight and creativity or, indeed, even if the inverted comma was in the correct place, grammatically.
In a drive to "improve standards", former education secretary Michael Gove and his successors have systematically squashed all the joy out of teaching by pushing radical changes to the curriculum, examinations and the school system. School staff members are now enduring unbearable levels of stress, which must impact the environment young people find themselves in. Subjects that we know have a therapeutic value, both in maintaining good mental health and combating illness, such as sports, art, music, and drama have been squeezed out of the curriculum, as core academic subjects have been prioritised.
The former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s "character education" belief that lessons in character are just as important as academic grades is demonstrated in her new book Taught Not Caught: educating for 21st-century character. This might be succeeding in teaching pupils why it’s so important to look after their wellbeing, but other changes to the systems are making it virtually impossible for them to adopt and practice the habits, which would be necessary to achieve that. Additionally, the curriculum is woefully over-stuffed and if children are going to develop crucial skills in critical thinking to allow them to survive in an aggressive individualist, consumerist capitalist environment then there needs to be breathing space in the school day to allow for discussion and debate.
If the government is as intent on improving the mental health of young people as their PR machine would suggest, they need, urgently, to listen to the teaching profession and to have a serious discussion about the purpose of education.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @natashadevon. Find out more about her work here.