‘We must stop continually talking up childhood complaints as mental health problems’

Society is in danger of inciting children to play up up to the enfeebled, vulnerable victim-model, writes the director of the Institute of Ideas

Claire Fox

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Last week, an International Survey of Children’s Well-Being (ISCWeB) was trumpeted as proving that eight-year-olds in England are a miserable bunch, less happy than those from Estonia or Turkey. Cue a plethora of angsty media features and official soul-searching about why England ranked 13th out of 16 countries, with only South Korea, Nepal and Ethiopia faring worse overall.

But before too much woe sets in and policy-makers jump to panicky conclusions, can we perhaps show a little more critical scepticism about this allegedly “shocking evidence”? The survey, coordinated in England by York’s Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU), was not an objective measure, but based on self-reporting. A total of 990 eight-year-olds were asked to rate how they felt about key aspects of their lives. But are children’s subjective feelings really water-tight proof of widespread unhappiness, albeit that the online questionnaires were adapted to eight-year-olds’ “cognitive levels” and “undertaken in a representative sample of schools”?

Jonathan Bradshaw, professor of social policy at the University of York, who co-edited the report, wrote an article for The Guardian entitled "What goes on in eight-year-olds’ heads: at last, a really clear picture". But I’m not convinced the picture is quite so clear; certainly not enough to lead to the policy outcomes Professor Bradshaw seems to assume are obvious. For example, if English eight-year-olds worry “about relationships with teachers”, why should we conclude, as SPRU does, that “schools in Britain really need to be friendlier places, more concerned with social relationships and less focused on attainment”? This seems more an ideological prejudice than scientifically evident.

What can we conclude when we discover that English children are particularly unhappy about their appearance and their own bodies? Inevitably, usual clichés about low self-esteem were trotted out. But why that conclusion, rather than the more plausible (if unfashionable) explanation that British children might be especially self-conscious about their body shape because of worries imposed on them via the public health industry’s over-zealous war on obesity, with its official weighing and measuring of pupils in schools? If these worries are a problem at all, let’s ask why British kids are so preoccupied about their looks in comparison with their Romanian peers, who topped the happiness survey. Perhaps Romanian eight-year-olds are too caught up in the harsh realities of living in an austerity-ridden country to think of worrying about body shape.

Show some common sense

A dose of common sense should be applied to assessing such comparative survey results. We are told that English children are “less happy at school where there seems to be an issue around bullying and being left out".  But perhaps the reason that Columbian children – who beat England hands down in the happiness league table – view school-yard spats as not worth complaining about, is because they but live in a country riven by decades of civil war and notoriously vicious drugs-related violence. Does that make them happier in any meaningful sense?  

Most worrying is that Professor Bradshaw concludes that “generally negative attitudes to school” suggest there should be a focus on “mental wellbeing in schools”. In the blink of an eye, the survey has become a vehicle for advocating a greater focus on therapeutic interventions in education. We are told that “we should perhaps look to Norway, where children are much happier at school”. In the same Guardian article, Sam Royston, head of policy at the Children’s Society, suggests that it should be “a legal requirement for schools in England to provide counselling and to allocate children’s mental health funding to promote children’s wellbeing”.

The Department for Education similarly responded to the survey by stating: “We are… promoting greater use of counselling in schools, improving teaching about mental health, and supporting joint working between mental health services and schools.” 

But when did feeling miserable constitute a mental health issue? Surely this pathologises childhood ups and downs and ironically could exacerbate the trend for kids to view events and relationships in their lives negatively. Indeed Dr Ken McLaughlin, a senior lecturer in social policy at Manchester Metropolitan University, warns of “a trend towards encouraging more and more children and adolescents to view their problems through a psychiatric and/or psychological lens, whereby a wide array of emotions and behaviours are given a diagnostic label”. 

And do we really want counsellors crawling all over schools? In preference, shouldn’t adults help the young put their (not so serious) problems into perspective rather than rushing to medicalise these experiences? An even worse idea is the call for all teacher-training to include “mental health first aid”. But shouldn’t teachers concentrate on encouraging young minds to look outward to new worlds opened up by subject knowledge rather than focusing pupils’ energies on dwelling on their inner, subjective angst? By continually talking up their childhood/childish complaints as mental health problems, we are in danger of inciting children to play up to the enfeebled, vulnerable victim-model, especially every time anyone approaches them with a survey form. Beware the self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire

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