As Mental Health Awareness week begins, the Mental Health Foundation commented: 'rather than ask why so many people are living with mental health problems, we will seek to uncover why too few of us are thriving with good mental health'. A good place to start is with the nation's children and young people, amongst whom there is a worrying level of mental breakdown. Facts and figures include:
- 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 -16 suffering from a diagnosable mental health disorder.
- Between 1 in every 12 and 1 in 15 children and young people deliberately self-harm, and in the last 10 years, there has been a 68% increase in of the number of young people being admitted to hospital for this reason.
- Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffering from severe depression, of whom 8,000 are under 10 years old.
- 95% of imprisoned young offenders with at least one mental health disorder; many have more than one.
- The number of young people aged 15-16 with depression almost doubling between the 1980s and the 2000s.
So why would this be? Contemporary children and young people live in a society where, although they may have access to more material resources than previous generations, they are also vulnerable to a greater range of stressors. This importantly includes 'high stakes' assessment in school and leisure activity on social networking websites, which has largely replaced independent association in outdoor environments.
The government has recently published a report which outlines the damage that current statutory assessment regimes have wrought upon the process of education, which nevertheless says little about the damage done to individuals, despite including comments from children in the report appendix that refer to their own personal reactions of 'nervousness and anxiety'.
Social networking companies are also fully aware of the unhappiness their websites create amongst children and young people; indeed, the Guardian last week reported their response to this: to gather algorithms from accounts to distribute to advertisers offering services for stress-related problems. Antonio Garcia-Martinez, an ex-Facebook executive commented 'let's assume Facebook does target ads at depressed teens. My reaction? So what. Sometimes data behaves unethically'.
Theresa May, in setting out her electoral stall has jumped firmly upon the same bandwagon, pledging to 'roll out mental health support to every school in country', whilst not commenting on what her future administration might do to attempt to reduce the stressors which initially cause the problem
Overall, then, the adult response has been to 'fiddle while Rome burns' by focusing upon the data rather than making an attempt to ameliorate the impact upon the child. We should be very concerned about such complacency. The foundations of mental stability, or indeed instability are constructed throughout the developmental period.
At the biological level, stress coping is mediated in human beings by the hormone cortisol, which functions as a thermostat, flooding the adrenal system when stressful situations are encountered. Childhood is the life stage in which the cortisol system is initially set up, and those who are continually stressed throughout this period inevitably develop poor stress-coping mechanisms. Children experiencing ongoing stress develop higher resting levels of cortisol, and take longer to return to this already elevated baseline following individual stressful events.
Chronically heightened cortisol is not only linked with emotional disturbance but additionally impacts upon memory and learning. At the psychological level, ongoing stress runs a 'background program' in the mind, leaving less capacity to deal with incoming information. This then sets up an ongoing cycle of stress and underachievement; indeed the children who gave evidence to the Parliamentary report commented that 'feeling nervous during the test might affect how well they did', indicating that they had a greater ability to reflect upon their situation than the adults who had placed them within it.
As children move into the teenage years, following the onset of puberty, the neuronal pathways that deal with complex socialisation move into a state of rapid development in which teenagers become paradoxically more prone to take social risks, while at the same time developing far more sensitivity to peer disapproval. Gauche teenage incidents are however no longer something that happen relatively anonymously as was the case for previous generations, but are instead captured in perpetuity within social networking arenas and shared across a wide audience, making such websites very dangerous places in which to behave like a normal teenager.
In the final analysis, it is of course not a set of inanimate data that behaves unethically, but adults who have the power to change societal structures which underlie the worsening mental health of young people, but who drag their heels and create smokescreen policies in order to maintain the status quo.
During this mental health awareness week, we should therefore challenge the currently campaigning leaders of all major political parties to consider how they might begin to actually deal with conditions within society that negatively impact upon the mass mental health of children and young people, rather than offer platitudes about picking up the pieces when mental breakdown occurs. And surely, this must also be one of the most important issues to address in their forthcoming manifestos, given that a mentally resilient young adult population is a fundamental requirement for future prosperity.