'We are in the middle of a youth mental health crisis – and it's sad so many people are determined ignore it'

26th April 2016 at 16:36
Youth mental health
Too many journalists, politicians, so-called experts and members of the establishment want to deny what is happening in our schools. And they seem to want to shoot the messenger too

Last weekend, my similarly Russell Brand-obsessed friend Amy came to stay and we watched A Second Coming, a documentary about the post-Perry era, during which Brand launched his hugely successful YouTube-based political commentary franchise, "The Trews".

This was my… um… second viewing of A Second Coming and something new struck me upon a closer inspection. I realised what the film was really about and that was the lengths people will go to in order to avoid discussing topics they find awkward, distasteful or frightening.

While Brand and his lone cameraman roamed the UK inviting us to vicariously witness and critically analyse the widespread social inequality they encountered, various mainstream media outlets and enraged social media commentators chose instead to berate Brand’s hair, waistcoats, sexual history, education, personal income bracket, living arrangements and previous form for leaving lewd voicemails for ageing celebrities. All of which was, I could now see, purely a way to mask the real issue Brand was attempting to highlight.

None of the anti-Brand sentiment could articulate in any meaningful way why climate change, the almost-turfing out of the residents of the New Era Estate or any of the other urgent social injustices explored in The Trews were in actual fact a "good thing", preferring instead to opine that social and political commentary should not be administered by a man wearing seven belts and a pair of silver snakeskin boots.

I mention the above because I’ve had a similar experience with mental health awareness-raising, if on a heretofore mercifully smaller scale. Since my appointment as the Department for Education’s mental health champion last August I’ve been called a “champagne socialist” (FYI, I much prefer prosecco), a “jealous working-class scrote”, a “privileged Tory puppet”, a “stupid bimbo”, “too clever for my own good”, pretentious, too mad, not quite mad enough, too fat, too thin, too ugly, too pretty, uneducated, over educated, too posh and “too Essex”. I’ve been endlessly misquoted, my CV has been scrutinised, and my Twitter feed has been analysed, ripped from its original context and used to batter me with. I’ve even been told to “sort my hair out” if I want to be “taken seriously”. All of which is the intellectual equivalent of shouting: “Look! A pigeon!” and then running away half way through a debate.

I used to think such foolishness was part and parcel of being a woman with a media profile – for I had become that most reviled of all beasts, she who is in possession of both a vagina and a voice. But I wonder whether, in fact, it’s simply a cumulative comment on the lengths the public will go to in order to avoid discussing mental health. Mental health remains for some an invisible and therefore unmeasurable and frightening entity, involving people whose behaviour we sometimes cannot understand and whose circumstances are sometimes upsetting; the discussion of which might force them to question what they think they know. For all our talk of "smashing stigma" and breaking taboos through open and honest communication, some of us will do anything to silence the people who are actually doing it, because of fear of change or general, misguided belligerence. 

'Media attacks'

In the latest last-ditch attempt to stop our collective mental health dialogue, in the past week my work has been subject to yet more media attacks, challenging the idea that there is an issue at all with the current generation of young people’s mental health. Today’s children and teenagers, they seem to claim, are being pandered to and mollycoddled when all they are really suffering from is narcissism and delusion.

My position, and that of other charities and campaigns, they further claimed, is merely "profiteering" from a topic which is currently "trendy" (with no mention whatsoever made of the fact that we are part of the reason it has become "trendy" in the first place).

My work – and that of my organisation, the Self-Esteem Team – has always been, and will continue to be, a direct and ever-evolving response to the concerns and challenges faced by real people, in real schools. The statistics do not paint an accurate picture of the scale of the mental health crisis. Thresholds for diagnostic criteria have been raised so high that what would once have been considered a serious mental illness is now normalised and dismissed, sometimes with fatal consequences.

A climate of rigorous testing, academic and social pressure, bullying from which one cannot escape, increased poverty and relentless pornification has turned what was once common-or-garden teenage angst into something far more sinister. How do I know? Teenagers and the people who teach them have told me, over and over again; hundreds, perhaps thousands of times over the past decade.

The current crisis in young people’s mental health is, at least in part, a price we have paid for historically belittling their feelings and struggles, labelling these "part of growing up", declaring that "life is tough" and that they do not deserve to live in a better environment or have any more support than we did when we were their age. It is the price we pay every time we call bullying "character building" and self-harm "attention seeking", or we fail to recognise that body image worries often point to deeper issues. It’s a ticking time bomb, hewn from our wilful oblivion.

I began campaigning in the hope of making life much better for today’s young people than it was for me. Financial, political and technological advancements since have, unfortunately, rendered that an impossible task, so far. But at least I am making it better than it would have been if I wasn’t trying.

So judge activism as pointless and stupid if that’s what gives you your kicks, but know that for every snide comment directed at those genuinely trying to make a difference I will hear only fear of change, I will see only ugly ignorance of the real issues at hand and, most of all, I will feel only a determination to shout even louder.

Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion. She tweets at @natashadevonMBE

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