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.
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.
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.
We live in a world where people are living with their parents into their 20s and 30s, and that makes poor mental health, in many cases, an economic issue. Because 49% of sixth-formers say that concerns about their future are a significant reason why they are suffering from anxiety. Then we have academic pressure, and, of course, that is related to concerns about the future, because the more concerned you are about your future, the more pressure you feel to do well in your exams. Britain trails behind other countries for numeracy and literacy, this we know.
There is a man who used to be Education Secretary in this country, called Michael Gove, or Michael sodding Gove, as we called him then. His response to us trailing behind in numeracy and literacy was: ‘Well, clearly, children need to spend more time learning numeracy and literacy, and need to be tested really rigorously from the moment they go to school, and we also need to monitor teachers to make sure that we improve standards.’ Which does have a sort of logic to it, if you don’t understand anything about child psychology, the way that children learn, or the human condition.
We also, incidentally, trail behind countries in Scandinavia, in numeracy and literacy. In Scandinavia, you don’t go to school until you are eight. You spend a significant part of your day learning through play, and you do not have any homework. But instead, our government decided to aspire to an education system like they have in Korea, where they also have a terrifyingly high pediatric and adolescence suicide rate. And then they were surprised when we had a mental health crisis in young people. Their response to that? Character education. Think about the implications of that. We need to teach young people how to have character.
The implication being, if you are struggling with your mental health, it is because you lack character. I think the opposite is true, actually. I think in this era of Trump, and Brexit, and the awful thing that happened to Joe Cox yesterday, and what is happening in Orlando, and the current cultural climate, if you do not feel at least a little bit anxious, it probably means you do not give a tiny rat’s fart about anything. Thank you.
In the state sector in particular, the things that naturally give us character – sports, music, dance, arts – were squished out of the curriculum, leaving many of us, again, feeling like we didn’t have a purpose. So we have young people being blamed for responding to a climate that isn’t their fault. And then, of course, the relentless pace of life plays its part, and this is exacerbated by the Internet. You can’t get away from that. Everywhere we look, we are constantly told that we’re not good enough, that we do not measure up. It has become the wallpaper of our world.
Consumerist capitalism has gone turbocharged. We are constantly being sold to. And the problem about conversations surrounding advertising is that nobody ever acknowledges that the impact is cumulative. Take for example last week. Our mayor in London, Sadiq Khan, decided: No more body-shaming on TfL. And the most famous example of a body-shaming advert was – I’m not going to say the name of the company – but it said: ‘Are you beach body ready?’ It featured a very conventionally attractive young woman in a bikini. And all the news items I saw about that, and all the radio phone-ins that I listened to, they brought some bloke on who went, ‘I think she looks all right; she don’t look too bad, she’s not anorexic or nothing. She looks lovely, I don’t see the problem. Maybe you’re all jealous.’ That is not a helpful conversation.
It does not take into account that the impact is cumulative. There are so many toxic ideas that permeate our society, the narrative by which we live. About what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be successful, what it means to be attractive. And it is constantly being reinforced by people who are trying to make money out of our insecurities.
So, how do we fix it? Well, we start by changing attitudes. I’ve had to read so many pieces in the press about ‘Generation Snowflake’. If you have an emotionally authentic response to the world that we live in, if you’re calling out racism, and sexism, and homophobia, and Islamophobia, you absolutely should be doing that. That doesn’t make you emotionally weak, that makes you incredibly brave, and we need to start recognizing that young people are calling for change. And of course change is scary. But it’s also completely necessary.
Now, I know that inevitably, at some point, this talk I am doing right now will end up on YouTube. And I know that underneath there will be comments, and those comments, they will accuse me of being a professional whinger; and they will call me a rabid feminist; they’ll call me a social justice warrior – I still don’t see why that’s an insult, by the way. ‘Social’ – good word. ‘Justice’ – brilliant word. ‘Warrior’ – OK.
How did that end up an insult? And they will also comment heavily on how I look as a way and a means of discrediting me. We need to stop being distracted by stuff like that; it’s not useful, and it’s not helpful. Yes, we need to be as resilient as we possibly can be, and learn skills that will help us deal with life. But we also need to change the world, because, in the words of Krishnamurti: ‘It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ Thank you for listening.