The ex-DfE mental health tsar:'My chronic concerns with the government's approach'

16th May 2016 at 14:17
Natasha Devon
Former government adviser Natasha Devon, fired for being too outspoken, including in her weekly TES column, outlines why she is worried about the government's attitude towards children's mental health

I am jealous of journalists who wrote back in the days when their words could genuinely be regarded as "tomorrow’s fish and chip paper". Everything I’ve written or been quoted as saying since about 2009 has made an indelible digital imprint, and I find that problematic since I’m someone who is prone to revising my opinions based on new information. 

My fundamental values – fairness, kindness, social justice, equal opportunity, standing up for the underdog and loving David Bowie – aren’t likely to change. But, occasionally, my understanding evolves and I realise I was…well…wrong. 

Probably the best example of a U-Turn in my own career relates to my thoughts on Page 3 of The Sun. (As U-turns go, it’s not quite up there with compulsory academisation but I did cause quite the hoo-ha at the time). Here is what happened: 

In 2014, the time when the world erupted over the No More Page Three campaign, I was doing the following things: 

1. Beginning my research on the impact of hardcore online pornography on young people and how the negative ramifications might be minimised through appropriate education;

2. Being really concerned about the much-documented under-achievment of boys in school and their general feelings of disillusionment and social disenfranchisement;

3. Hanging out with Kris Hallenga, founder of charity Coppafeel!, who is a legend of epic proportions and was working with The Sun to use Page 3 for a (hugely controversial) breast cancer campaign. 

In this context, the conclusions I reached were: a) Page 3 wasn’t that bad in the scheme of things; b) the campaign to ban Page 3 unfairly demonised men and boys; and c) they were also picking on my mate who is dying of cancer. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What kind of feminist and body confidence campaigner supports a newspaper routinely objectifying women who only fit a very narrow definition of what beauty is? The answer is "one who is suffering from a chronic dose of ‘not being able to see the bigger picture’". I was wrong not to see Page 3 as indicative of a time when women were less respected and therefore a symbol of female oppression. I was also wrong to think that, just because Page 3 didn’t inspire feelings of outrage and insecurity in me, it meant that I could ignore all the people for whom it did. That’s, ultimately, what the entire saga taught me – My own feelings aren’t as important as those who are, for whatever reason, more vulnerable. 

This weekend I trended on Twitter and my historical opinions on a variety of issues resurfaced. The most important ones were, however, overlooked in favour of the most controversial/daft (in the spirit of full disclosure, up until I was about 7 I believed in Father Christmas. There. I’ve said it).

Pressure on school pupils

I thought I’d take the opportunity to restate what my most chronic concerns are about the government’s handling of child and adolescent mental health, lest this crucial debate gets absorbed in the one people are having about whether or not I’m a prat:

  1. Our government claims to be prioritising children’s mental health while apparently aspiring to an academic system implemented by countries where the child and adolescent suicide rates are staggering;
  2. The proposed restructuring of schools to include a system of mental health support is being spun as merely "suggestions" from the Department for Education, which in reality means it does not have to be given the appropriate amount of funding, training and resources;
  3. Arguments about "resilience" and "grit" are being used to justify piling unlimited amounts pressure on children. Advice is being taken from experts like Stan Kutcher, who (correctly) points out that stress can be good for us. However:
    a) Stress is to mental health what avocados are to dieting – only a little is helpful;
    b) Furthermore, children (particularly those at primary age) are still in developmental stages where stress can impair cognitive development. This renders the argument rather counter-intuitive;
  4. Schools are being expected to absorb the consequences of cuts to child and adolescent mental health services. Whilst the government claims to be investing £1.4 billion into young people’s mental health over the next five years, a recent report found that this had manifested as a real increase in spending in just half of local authorities. Incidentally, Sarah Brennan, of charity Young Minds, said at the HMC conference that local authorities are giving what was once allocated to mental health to other causes, knowing they will receive new funding for mental health, which means the amount of money being spent has not increased, in real terms. This leaves teachers still struggling to support children with chronic mental health issues and nowhere to refer them;
  5. Interventions focus on symptoms as opposed to causes. Even the most sceptical of scientists have now agreed that young people’s mental health is getting worse year on year. If unavoidable mental illness proportionally remains the same with each passing generation, that means we are failing to create a culture which protects children from entirely avoidable mental health issues and then medicating them for it.

In short, I believe that living in a society which values their health and happiness is our children’s basic human right. And that’s not an opinion I can imagine revising. 

Natasha Devon was the Department for Education’s mental health champion until two weeks ago and tweets at @NatashaDevonMBE

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