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'The truth about youth mental health is censored'

Bitter experience has taught this mental health campaigner that the powers that be don't want to hear the truth

Natasha Devon, World Mental Health Day, mental health

Bitter experience has taught this mental health campaigner that the powers that be don't want to hear the truth

Following his expletive-filled outburst on Good Evening Britain last week, it appears that world is in love with Danny Dyer. Regardless of political proclivities or individual stances on Brexit, he somehow managed to articulate a universal truth we could all relate to. Why? He told the truth. And in these days of carefully constructed ‘balance’ in media debates and dog-whistle politics, truth is in short supply.

For years now I have been by turns bemused and infuriated by television’s insistence on avoiding discussion of what I consider to be the real contributory factors behind the child and adolescent mental health crisis. Whilst I have been visiting an average of three schools and colleges per week hearing and seeing the devastating impact of austerity measures not only on the education system but also on CAMHS, the majority of media outlets have confined their discussions to Love Island, social media and whether or not young people are whinging, ungrateful ‘snowflakes’.

Of course, there can be absolutely no doubt that pop culture and technology have a monumental impact on the way that we all think, behave and view ourselves and that this is particularly pronounced in young people. It’s also true to say that these factors potentially adversely affect self-esteem, a lack of which is a diagnostic component in almost all mental illnesses. To conflate the aforementioned with having a serious discussion about mental health is, however, to mislead the public.

I couldn’t understand why teacher stress, exam pressure and cuts to school budgets are mentioned in news items, but are conspicuously absent in discussions and debates about children and young people’s mental health. That was, until last Tuesday.

The BBC is currently hosting a season of programmes celebrating 70 years of the NHS. Months ago, I had been invited to take part in a live 90-minute live broadcast discussing the biggest issues affecting the NHS in 2018, with ten-minute segments on, amongst other things, obesity, dementia and young people’s mental health. I attended a meeting at the Beeb as well as partaking in several subsequent research calls and emails, after which it was agreed that I would be asked the following three questions (with my rough thoughts on each outlined below):

1. What is responsible for the huge rise of mental health issues in young people?

Contrary to what we so often hear, it’s not just social media. There is a perfect storm of factors which have conspired to create a fertile breeding ground for mental ill health, not least of all the education system itself.

Since 2010, education reforms have made it harder and harder for pupils and teachers alike to attain a decent level of wellbeing within a school environment. Subjects which have been proven to have a therapeutic value, both in maintaining good mental health and recovering from mental illness (such as sport, art, music and drama) have been systematically defunded and squeezed out of the school week as the curriculum has become narrower. There is a relentless exam culture, which often makes schools highly pressurised and stressful environments. There is no budget for PHSE, which means it is taught inconsistently and young people might not learn the coping skills they need.

2. What about mental health services, the government pledged £1.5 billion for children’s mental health in 2015. Have we seen an improvement?

While it is technically true that no government has ever invested as much into mental health, it is also true that no government has ever cut so much. The investment is not only not direct (it’s dependent upon savings) but it only represents around one-third of what has been cut under Jeremy Hunt.

Furthermore, the money is not ring-fenced. This means that when funding intended for mental health services reaches the local authority, they can choose not to spend the money on mental health services. An investigation by then shadow minister for mental health Luciana Berger in 2016 revealed that, while £76 million of the £1.5 billion had been invested at that point, only half of local authorities had increased their spending on mental health in real terms.

3. Are we doing enough as a society to protect children?

Child poverty is rising, a fact about which we should feel thoroughly ashamed. According to charity Action for Children, there are 3.9 million living in poverty in 2018 and evidence from the University of Oxford shows that is set to increase steeply over the next few years. This is despite us having the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, which would suggest that young people have been disproportionately impacted by austerity measures.

There is an established link between having a very low income and poor mental health. It’s not necessarily that a lack of wealth makes it more likely you will develop mental illness in the first place, but it definitely means you are less likely to be able to access expedient and adequate care and we know that the longer a mental health issue is left untreated the worse it will become.

The programme was due to air at 8pm and we were instructed to arrive at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where a makeshift studio had been created, at 3pm to allow for a rehearsal. This passed without incident. Several hours of waiting around later, I was approached by one of the researchers and told there was a "slight problem". She then gave me a list of things I wasn’t allowed to reference on air, based on the fact that "the government wasn’t there to defend itself". These included:

I argued that it would be impossible to give an accurate portrayal of the current situation regarding young people’s mental health without making reference to any of these things. The conversation became increasingly fraught, until I actually had to deploy the phrase "this is making me very angry" and she scuttled off to find someone senior.

Over the course of the next half hour, I agreed with the makers of the show a set of more ‘neutral’ phrases I could use which would still convey my opinions to the viewer with reasonable clarity. For example, instead of saying ‘austerity’ I had to say ‘problems with the economy since the financial crash of 2008’. After all, they reminded me, CAMHS isn’t just funded by the local authority and child poverty has ‘any number of causes’. Fancy forgetting that. Silly me.

In the event, however, I didn’t get the opportunity to deploy my carefully recalibrated statements. I was asked the first question only before the presenter, Anita Rani, cut to the next segment of the show. I was completed blindsided and totally furious, not least of all because the decision had meant the entire segment on young people’s mental health had been cut to approximately three minutes; once again, pushed to the bottom of the pile.

I understand, of course, that there are laws around expressing opinions about people or institutions without giving them the right of reply. Yet, as you have seen, my responses were based on thorough research and information freely available to the public. It wasn’t so much ‘opinion’ as ‘fact’. Somehow, the desire for a ‘fair’ broadcast had turned into just the opposite: censorship.

And that, in a nutshell, is why you see so many pundits w*nking on endlessly about Instagram in response to questions about young people and education which should require a more socio-political response.

Don’t fall into the same trap as I did. If you’re a teacher or education expert who is asked on a TV show, say everything you have to in your first breath, regardless of the question. Get the truth out there for the world to see. In short, do a Dyer.

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

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