Natasha Devon discusses the greatest mental health crisis facing UK education

Growing up slowly is good for mental health

Peter Tait
May 17th 2018

Natasha Devon, one-time Children’s Mental Health Tsar, began Mental Health Awareness Week in fine fettle, beginning the week by introducing a petition to get a mental health first aider into every workplace and ending it by launching her new book ‘A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental’.

Feisty and straight talking, Natasha has often been a thorn in the government’s side by drawing their attention to what is the greatest crisis facing our young, that of mental health.

We only have to look at the statistics to see how serious this crisis is: the 700 young people who kill themselves every year; the  fact that the number with eating disorders and self-harming has doubled in the last three years; the drop of the average age for depression from forty five years in the 1960s to fourteen years today; and this week, the news that the number of children under eleven being referred for specialist support has increased by a third over the past four years.  Over the poast decade, when funding for mental health was decreasing, the proportion of GP consultations relating to mental health grew to one third and yet many children suffering with depression and mental illness are still not being offered the help they desperately need.

The Government’s response has been cautious.

Their recent announcement of a further £300 million to be added to their mental health budget over the next five years is scant relief to a system that is already straining to cope with the increase in referrals in our schools. What is more, only part of this sum is to be set aside to help schools, specifically by providing mental health leads and support teams, which in the view of its loudest critics, will do little to stop the growing epidemic.

What is being overlooked in the race to get more trained staff into schools and to provide better training and systems of referral are any clear responses to the questions ‘why this is happening?’  What has led to this crisis that is afflicting so many of the young?  And, pertinently, what are we doing to addressing the causes of this epidemic?

There are a number of areas where parents and schools can make a significant difference.

By way of an answer, Matthew Walker in his best-selling book ‘Why We Sleep’ argues that a significant cause of mental illnesses in our young is the result of a lack of sleep, noting in passing that they are sleeping two hours less than their counterparts of a century ago . By ignoring the fact the all children need at least eight hours of sleep a night and that the circadian rhythm of teenagers means they need to sleep later, he argues we are placing them at considerable risk of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.  Compounding this, is the desire to start schools earlier and the belief that the most effective learning takes place in the morning. More regular sleep, including insistence on bedtimes for the young and structured routines for teenagers (including a down time for blue screens) would help; as would schools acknowledging what neuroscience tells us, that sleep deprivation is a major causal factor in the onset of mental illness.

Another cause that is in our gift to fix is the number and language of examinations.

As SATS begins this week (no coincidence, surely) we read on numerous websites of advice being given to primary  children on how to handle the stress of exams, ‘being prepared not scared’ or the ominously named “survival guides” for GCSE.

If students weren’t worried beforehand, they certainly couldn’t avoid a degree of concern on hearing a former head telling them that seven hours of revision a day was required over the Easter holidays if they wanted to do well. That primary children are experiencing stress and anxiety because of the 11+ tests is unforgiveable, (and the presence of the guide ‘Five ways to safeguard children's wellbeing during Sats week’ should make us all feel queasy), not simply because the omnipresence of the testing process, which is bad enough, but because we have hyped up the importance of tests, dragged them into the public arena through league tables and then used them to measure schools and teachers according to the performance of the pupils. This generation are not afraid of hard work, but with exam stress listed as one of the leading causes of youth suicide, we need to respond to the impact of too much testing and the aggressive language that promotes the primacy of examinations which is contributing to the increase in mental illness.

A third cause is our conversations with children and the encouragement to tell them everything about everything, thinking they have the emotional and intellectual maturity to cope.

I don’t know how I would have coped at age eleven with all the information young children have to deal with today, often about grim topics or adult themes. Of course, with the internet the walls are partly down although good parenting can delay and / or modify the impact of social media, but perhaps we just need to make more effort to protect childhood and childish things and not abrogate some of the responsibilities of parenting to the internet.  Yes, there are other factors that have a very significant effect on the mental health of the young, including the well-documented impact of technology on mental health and systemic drug use, but many of the causes are to do with lifestyle: lack of routine, lack of sleep, an absence of family nurturing and too much emphasis on exams and the language of testing. 

Our schools do need more funding, urgently so, and the provision of trained staff, but as the crisis deepens and children’s mental health continues to deteriorate, perhaps, just perhaps, a closer look at the causes, (and not just the those noted here), may pay dividends -  and even save lives.

About the Education Consultant

Peter Tait is a former independent school Head and is part of the William Clarence Education Advisory Board

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