'Young people's mental health is getting worse, but the government doesn’t want to address the social inequality that causes it'

21st March 2016 at 15:39
natasha devon, poverty, inequality, mental health
In a room full of privileged men who think children thrive under pressure, the DfE's mental-health champion discovers her angry voice

According to Caitlin Moran's latest (characteristically brilliant) tome, one should never write angry. It's sage advice, yet I wonder what Caitlin would say the protocol is for when you find yourself – 48 hours after an event and three hours before your deadline – having spent a weekend in the country furiously petting your parents' pooch, taking deep cleansing breaths and watching rom-coms in an attempt to calm yourself…and you're still angry?

Should I write what I'm about to? Will I look back on this column in three months' time and think “Gosh, didn't my raw emotional reaction prevent me from seeing the truth?” I don't know. I'm too incandescent to speculate.

Allow me to explain. On Friday, I attended a much-anticipated and publicised conference at the University of Cambridge, organised by Steve Mallen, founder of the MindEd Trust. I've spoken about Steve in a previous column. He is a brilliant man, one of our most tenacious and important mental-health campaigners, a grieving father whose son Edward took his own life after the health service failed to give him the attention and treatment he needed. The conference whipped both the local and national media into a veritable frenzy, including as it did some of our country's most eminent scientists, as well as a personalised video message from shadow mental-health minister Luciana Berger, an opening address from Liberal Democrat MP and mental-health champion Norman Lamb and an appearance by Alistair Burt, minister for community and social care.

I was chairing a panel called “young people's perspective”, which featured Rosie Tressler from Student Minds, and campaigner and educator Johnny Benjamin and Francesca Reed from the youth select committee. All four of us spend our days working with young people struggling with their mental health, and we have developed strategies for engaging a notoriously tricky demographic in a crucial conversation. All of us also have first-hand experience of mental illness.

I had spent the days leading up to the conference preparing questions to ask Francesca, Johnny and Rosie which would give delegates the advantage of their extensive on-the-ground experience. I did not get to ask a single one. Our 45-minute panel slot was cut by half because the conference was running over time and Alistair Burt was, reportedly, on his way. Later, a Cambridge professor stood up and told us how glad he was that such an obviously supportive community had been established between us “terrific kids”. (I am 35 years old). Whether consciously or not, he made it clear that, henceforth, it was grown-up time.

Alistair Burt was parachuted in about two hour later. He presented a 30-minute speech, most of which he spent telling us how important mental health is and praising the work we are doing in the field.

I’ve heard great things about Alistair Burt and I’m sorry that all my frustration at the government generally was subsequently hurled in his direction. I am not a person who gets angry often – I never, ever shout and I'm far more likely to default to humour to make my point. On Friday, as I raised my hand and fired the first question from the audience at the minister, I discovered what my angry voice sounds like (peculiarly like a goose being strangled, FYI).

This government and the coalition before them have engineered a social climate where it's really difficult for any young person to enjoy optimal mental health. Parents work every hour God sends to make ends meet, meaning reduced quality family time spent together. Spiralling poverty means the number of young people relying on food banks reached one million as we entered 2015. Schools are increasingly being relied upon to give pupils breakfast.

At school, teachers are stressed, children are tested rigorously from the age of four, with little or no positive creative outlets for their emotions in the form of sport and arts. If they wish to go into higher education, they do so in the knowledge that they will leave with record amounts of debt. The NHS is on its knees, meaning that decent healthcare has become the privilege of those who dwell in the right postcode.

How can children and young people be expected to flourish in these circumstances? Is it any wonder that anxiety disorder is bucking the one in 10 trend, increasing at a dramatic rate in under 21s? Or that hospitalisations for self-harm have doubled in the past three years? As Steve himself noted at the beginning of the conference, it isn’t simply that we are hearing about mental ill-health more these days: our mental health is, beyond empirical doubt, getting worse. We are applying the factor 50, but what is the government doing to turn down the heat?

This was the question I posed to the minister. He replied that children need pressure to thrive and that life is tough, before taking a couple more questions and swiftly making his exit (presumably into a waiting getaway car).

Later, another scientist from the university took to the floor to declare that we should not “protect children from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, that stress is, in fact, good for us, and that all that is needed to counteract it is to teach children “mental-health literacy”. Now, I'd be the first person to advocate the teaching of mental-health literacy – the evidence for its efficacy is massive. The professor in question was, in many regards, absolutely right and he had the graphs and pie charts to prove it. What worried me was that, throughout his presentation, government representatives were studiously scribbling notes, no doubt to refer to the next time they needed to justify changes to the education system which put ever-spiralling amounts of pressure on teachers and students alike.

It was at this point that I looked around me, realised what was happening and promptly walked out. Because I was essentially in a room in one of the country’s most elitist institutions, full of highly educated, privileged, middle-aged white men in suits who were rapidly arriving at the conclusion that there was no point in trying to address social inequality when mental-health literacy would solve it all. And I didn't want to be there when they reached that inevitable intellectual apex. Not when I'd only just discovered my angry voice and wasn't quite sure I could control it.

For all Steve's blood, sweat and tears in bringing together people from the political, education and scientific spheres with the aim of finding common ground (something for which he should be commended), I left feeling that I'd just witnessed a commentary on all the worst aspects of the society in which we find ourselves. Genuine young people, or those regularly interacting with them on the frontline all but silenced (and then patronised), politicians spewing out meaningless platitudes and experts providing research-based evidence to support the government’s seemingly insatiable thirst for shitting on the little guy.

It would be remiss of me to suggest that the day was a total write-off. Norman Lamb was incredible. Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambridgeshire, was her usual vibrant and empathic self, and managed to calm the crowd in the wake of Alistair Burt's speech. Johnny Benjamin's brief presentation was full of insight and one of the professors confessed during his that all his years of research had bought him to the exact same conclusions Francesca Reed had mooted (based on her lived experience and being an actual young person, which I logged as a small victory). Dr David Bainbridge also gave a rather brilliant presentation in defence of the teenage brain. These were, for me, the high points.

And the MindEd Trust Conference fulfilled its crucial purpose – I am more fired up and more determined to use my position (however long it may now last) to fight for the rights of children, young people and those who teach them than ever.

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

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