Is Our Society Breaking Children’s Brains?: Natasha Devon at TEDxSWPS (Transcript)

Natasha Devon – Writer

I want you to imagine that you’ve just moved to a new area, and you don’t know it terribly well. So you’re walking around, trying to get the lie of the land, and you notice that every fourth person you see in the street has a broken leg. And you think, ‘That’s a bit odd, I wonder why that’s happening.’

So you decide to ask one of them. You say, ‘What’s causing this?’ And they say, ‘Well, in one of the streets in our town, there’s this hazard, and it causes you to trip and fall over. And for us it meant that we broke our legs, because the infrastructure of this town is such that it’s very difficult to avoid walking down that road, you see. But it has not just affected us.

There are other people who, maybe, they’ve grazed their knees, or they’ve twisted their ankles. So they haven’t hurt themselves as severely as us, but for us it meant that we broke our legs.’ What kind of person would you need to be, for your instinctual response to that scenario to be: ‘They need to make their legs more resilient.’ Because that is what is happening with young people and mental health.

One in four of us will experience a mental health problem during our lifetimes. And the government’s response to that? A resilience agenda in the education system. Now, I don’t want you to go away thinking that I do not believe in resilience, I do. I’m one-third of an organization called The Self-Esteem Team, and we travel schools and colleges throughout the UK, and we work with teenagers giving them the skills we think that they need, that will help them to navigate modern life.

But it wasn’t until was I invited to work with the Department for Education, last August, that I realized that a resilience program, the concept of resilience, could be used as an excuse to pile more and more pressure, indefinite amounts of pressure, on young people, and then to blame them when they couldn’t cope. It doesn’t matter how skeptical you are, mental health is absolutely getting worse, and you can measure that totally empirically. The most conservative estimate is that the four most common mental illnesses in young people, which are anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders, have risen by 70% in a generation. But that’s the lowest figure that you’ll find.

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We know that hospitalizations for self-harm and eating disorders have doubled in the past three years. We know that suicide is the biggest killer of young men under 50 in the UK. Between the ages of 24 and 35, suicide accounts for one in four male deaths.

Now, there are two schools of thought in psychology, broadly speaking. The first school of thought believes that all human emotion is on a spectrum. So, let’s say, for example, I have low self-esteem, and I don’t like how I look, which is an everyday problem that most of us can relate to. If I don’t find some kind of outlet, some way to express that problem, some way to deal with it, and it’s left for long enough, I might potentially end up developing an eating disorder. But this school of thought believes that an eating disorder is just a more dramatic expression of those feelings I was feeling to begin with.

The second school of thought believes that mental health issues and mental illnesses are distinct from one another. So going back to my broken leg analogy, that would be, ‘Well, you are exhibiting all the symptoms of a broken leg, but that’s distinct from actually having a broken leg.’ And that sounds stupid, but there is actually some really good evidence to support that theory, that the two are distinct from one another. I meander between the two; I can be convinced either way.

However, whichever theory you subscribe to, the solution is to look at the causes. If we catch mental health issues in their infancy, we can stop them from developing into mental illnesses, or we can separate out mental health issues from mental illnesses. There are benefits to looking at causes either way. If you want to find the causes of poor mental health in young people, you can try and measure it with some string and a Bunsen burner, or you can do something really radical and ask them.

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And Young Minds, a charity that works in the UK, in 2014, did exactly that: they surveyed 5,000 young people. The results of that survey surprised many. They found that a significant amount of anxiety and depression was being caused by concerns about economic prospects and the future. They found that young people were worried about the prospect of unemployment; that they were worried about leaving university with record amounts of debt; that they were worried that a normal wage is no longer enough to live a normal life.

You know, sometimes, when I am feeling nostalgic, I’d go home to my parent’s house in Essex, and I sit in the dog’s basket with her, and I say to mum, ‘Mum, tell me stories about the seventies and eighties.’ When I was born, in 1981, my dad had a market store, and my mum was an assistant buyer for a fashion chain, and neither of those were particularly well-paid jobs. But they could afford a mortgage on a modest property, they could afford to run a car, and they could afford to feed and clothe me. That would no longer be true in 2016, because wages have not kept up with inflation. That’s left a lot of young people without a sense of purpose, because that is why you go out and work: it’s to gain your independence.

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