"That's mad!" I thought as I read Future in Mind, a report published by the Children and Young People's Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce. Set up by the last government's Minister of State for Care and Support, Norman Lamb, its aim was to come up with proposals for 'promoting, protecting and improving our children and young people's mental health and wellbeing'.
According to the report one in ten children of school age is suffering from a mental disorder, the most common of which are described as conduct disorders, anxiety, depression and hyperkinetic disorders (such as ADHD). This is a big problem. Not because so many kids have a mental health problem or because the report's figures are reliant on data that is a decade out of date. I suspect the next prevalence survey will find an even larger proportion of children are suffering from these disorders. The real problem is that such a blatatly contestable claim about the mental state of the nation's children is not met with unbelieving scepticism. There is much assertion about the stigma of mental health but what is most striking is a tendency to over-diagnose and normalise it. For all the protests about a lack of resources, mental health is rising up the political agenda. The new policy orthodoxy says that mental health must have 'parity of esteem' with physical health, and care must be prioritised, funded and integrated accordingly.
It is widely agreed that the quality and extent of provision for both adults and children is inadequate. While it is no doubt true that people with serious mental health problems are not receiving the help they need - the extent of mental health problems is inevitably exaggerated by the lumping together of relatively rare psychiatric disorders with the everyday, and apparently growing, problems of bullying and bad behaviour. What makes the report such a depressing read is the authors' chronic lack of curiosity as to the origins of this remarkable explosion in diseases of the mind amongst the young. They can only recommend the further roll-out of therapeutic interventions in children's lives; and justify it with a none-too-convincing early intervention dogma, that is as surely as much to blame for the rise in incidences of mental health problems as it is for their prevention.
It doesn't occur to them to ask whether it is really such a great idea to teach children the lesson that what they need from school is not a good education that might take them out of themselves, but a counsellor to dwell on what's inside their immature heads every time they get upset. As if that's not enough, lobbyists are also calling for all teacher training to include mental health awareness. All of which makes the creation of a therapy-seeking generation a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're already seeing the results of this as undergraduates struggle to cope with the demands of the student bar, never mind their lectures. They demand to be protected from everything from offensive songs (i.e. Blurred Lines) to an alleged 'rape culture'; and even from the content of their own courses in case they 'trigger' a negative emotion. Universities, unsurprisingly, faced with this mass outbreak of students enfeebled by a culture of victimhood and vulnerability, are now complaining that they don't have the resources to cope with the high numbers of students presenting with mental health problems.
So why are so many of our otherwise healthy offspring apparently afflicted with mental health problems like never before? The maddening thing is that they're not really all mentally ill. Society is certainly suffering a crippling malady. But it is better understood as a crisis of adulthood, of knowing when to take responsibility, of putting things in perspective, of having the values and the authority, to give children the guidance they need to cope with life's difficulties and understand that they don't constitute a mental health issue. It's just what life is like when you're growing up; and its only when they understand this that we can be confident that they too won't be demanding their 'safe spaces' on campus.
The Social Policy Forum will be asking 'Is children's mental health the next big epidemic?' on Thursday this week at a pub in Covent Garden. You can register to attend here.