You may have picked up in the press that this week is Child Mental Health week. It’s a subject close to my heart. This isn’t because my children are suffering from serious mental ill health. I admit that my daughter has been struggling with anxiety since starting secondary school but she isn’t mentally ill or in need of medical assistance – yet.
No, it’s because I see the increasing pressure placed on children these days – in school and society – to be older than their years as a direct threat to their mental health. Long term stress has been shown to be damaging to adults’ mental and physical health. The harm to children is expected to be even greater because childhood is meant to be a time for learning through play, fun, exploration and gradual learning of responsibility (see Save Childhood Movement‘s site for statistics and research).
The increasing amounts of homework, weekly reminders to achieve 100% attendance (“Even if you’re feeling a little unwell, come in”), and regular testing has made early teen years more akin to my GCSE years: studious, serious and devoid of a lot of fun.
Most headteachers are under too much pressure to create space in the timetable for essential needs like enough physical exercise and creative learning. And most teachers are struggling to cope with mounting curriculum demands and meeting targets to have the headspace for the welfare of their pupils.
Even my son’s primary school has made the decision to drop Recorder lessons for years 5 & 6 to find the time to cover the tougher curriculum. He’s only 10 and recorder was the only instrument he was learning. Ok, I know some parents were jumping with joy at the thought of no more squawking like a strangled cat when their kids ‘practiced’ but the recorder is considered by most musicians as the best way to learn music.
A friend of mine’s 16 year old daughter has in the last year attempted suicide twice. She comes from a very happy, well-rounded family. Her mother, who wrote a guest post for Mumsnet this week, points to school pressures contributing to her daughter’s anxiety, although she doesn’t specifically attribute it as the cause.
What are we doing to our kids, our teachers, and the next generation?
I recently attended an interesting event here in St Albans organised by our local Liberal Democrats party with the dynamic Norman Lamb MP as the main speaker. As Minister of Care with responsibility for mental health during the Coalition Government, Lamb has made significant inroads in addressing what he called “the inadequacies of the mental health system“. Thanks to his department’s work, no longer do minors get put in police cells rather than health clinics when they cause trouble, or sent to prison misguidedly. Parents now have choice over the location of where their child receives treatment (even if it is the choice between Aberdeen or Eastbourne – I’m not exaggerating!). Waiting times have been initiated for psychiatric support, something unheard of 10 years ago. There’s a long way to go to bring mental health care in anyway up to the level of physical health care by the NHS (which itself is in serious jeopardy as we all know) but “It’s a start,” as he rather humbly phrased it. He’s currently campaigning, together with Alistair Campbell and Andrew Mitchell, for a cross party solution to the crisis in mental health care which you can sign here.
Why I’m telling you this (apart from sharing some interesting information) is that whilst there I got the chance to ask a question to the panel. Having heard Norman Lamb talk about prevention being of paramount importance, I wanted to raise this issue of the impact of education policy on child mental health. Who, I wondered, was talking to the Dept of Education about the effect of their approach and policies on child/teen stress? I hadn’t prepared the exact wording of my question and burbled it out rather badly after being asked to come to the podium to ask it (!). However the applause I got and subsequent tweets about it made me realise I was far from alone in my thinking.
The answer I got from Norman Lamb was that until the research is done to prove the link, there’s not much they can do (my paraphrasing – he said it in a much more diplomatic way of course). Research into the numbers of children suffering mental ill health and possible causes is now at last under way, something he’d pushed for 10 years ago. Great. Lets keep an eye out on what the research finds. But his next reply makes me wonder how much of a difference it will make. He said “The best schools can balance striving for academic excellence and also child well-being.” Maybe, but from what I’ve heard, they must be very few and far between.
Is it just me or do others feel the politicians deliberately have their fingers in their ears?
This is a Europe-wide problem too. I hear of similar concerns in Spain and Denmark. I’m sure they’re not the only ones.
To end on a positive note, at the Lib Dem event was an inspirational campaigner called Kat Cormack who bravely spoke about her battle with depression and self-harming as a teenager here 15 years ago. Assured, non-judgemental, positive she spoke of the urgent need for mental health support and education of young people in what mental health is and isn’t. She recommended 3 charities/support groups worthy of our financial support, namely OLLIE (local suicide prevention organisation), Youth Talk (local youth counselling service) and Kooth (a free national online service for 11-19 yrs needing emotional and mental support). These are all worth checking out if your child is suffering.
There is no easy answer to this problem and I recognise it is a complex issue with multiple factors affecting child mental health. Social media is another significant factor, of course. Funding is urgently needed for prevention and early intervention. But we also need to take a look at what our society’s competitive, perfectionist, money driven, value system is doing to the next generation.