Children need to know stress is normal, not necessarily a mental health problem

First published in Guardian

There is a statistic often quoted by children’s mental health campaigners: 10% of children and young people (aged five to 16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem. It comes from a 2004 report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) (pdf), but its methodology is questionable – the diagnoses were made using transcripts of ONS interviews, by clinicians who never met the children in question. But what’s really revealing is the researchers’ broad definition of a mental health problem.

More than half (5.8%) of those diagnosed with a condition (9.6%) had what are described as conduct disorders – antisocial behaviours, such as aggression or deceitfulness. More than a third (3.7%) had emotional disorders including anxiety and depression, but also phobias – for example, a fear of dogs. The remainder were judged either “hyperactive”, “impulsive” and “inattentive” (1.5%) or had less common conditions (1.3%) such as autism.

In other words, a large part of the children’s mental health problem in this country is antisocial behaviour. What would have once been put down to a child being naughty is today turned into a need, and grounds for potential psychological or even psychiatric intervention.

That’s not to deny that there’s a problem. According to a survey conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), more than half (55%) of schools report increased stress and anxiety among their pupils. Over the past five years, 40% have seen a large rise in cyberbullying; four out of five (79%) report more self harm and suicidal thoughts among students; more than half (53%) rate their local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) as poor or very poor, and 80% want to see those services expanded. This is despite most schools already offering on-site support with for mental health problems.

Young people are typically waiting months and even years for treatment by their local Camhs. But instead of asking how we meet these needs, we need to ask what has given rise to them.

No distinction

As a society, we are encouraged to understand the challenges children face as mental health or emotional problems – no distinction is made between the two. Behavioural problems at nursery and teenage use of social media are spoken of in the same breath as eating disorders. The impression is that a big and growing problem exists and that these very different concerns are somehow related or on a continuum – and that the apparently unprecedentedly challenging world of today is to blame.

The ASCL interim general secretary, Malcolm Trobe, said earlier this year: “Children today face an extraordinary range of pressures.” These include “enormously high expectations, where new technologies present totally new challenges such as cyberbullying”.

Nihara Krause, a clinical psychologist and founder of teenage mental health charity Stem4, says that young people today experience “levels of competition and performance anxiety unknown to any generation”.

“The increase in mental ill-health among our young people is exacerbated by our trophy culture. Outside school, our body-obsessed, share-everything culture subjects them to a new form of scrutiny,” she says.

There is a real problem here, but perhaps it’s not that young people are increasingly mentally or emotionally unwell, or because the difficulties they face are uniquely challenging. Maybe the issue is that we’ve adopted this narrative of vulnerability, and affected the way young people understand themselves and what they are capable of.

Young people are picking up the message that they are defined by their vulnerabilities, and that they are unable to deal with what in the past would have been regarded as unremarkable facts of life. But what does it do to children if they are told that they can’t cope, that they must seek professional help? It means children and families feel less able to draw on their own informal ways of working things out – not least because families themselves (and parents in particular) are often seen by the experts as part of the problem.

If we want to prevent the problems campaigners describe, we need to hold the line – as parents, as teachers, as adults. We need to teach things that bring children out of themselves. We should give them something to aspire to or embrace. We need to prepare them for adulthood, and let them know that a certain amount of stress and feeling down is just part of growing up.

When teachers become glorified therapists rather than educators – by trying to treat young people rather than instruct them, by massaging young minds rather than filling them up with the knowledge – they can unwittingly contribute to the problem. And worse, they are being distracted from the one thing that they are qualified to do and that will help the young flourish and grow into well-adjusted young adults: teach.



Stop telling kids they’re mentally ill

First published in sp!ked

It was World Mental Health Day earlier this week. To mark the occasion, the London Eye was lit up in purple, as part of a global campaign set up in the memory of Amanda Todd, a Canadian teenager who took her own life in 2012.

Todd’s is a tragic story. In 2012, at the age of 15, she killed herself shortly after posting a YouTube video telling of how she was being bullied. However, Todd’s story and others are being used to build a misleading narrative of deepening and widespread mental-health problems among children.

With the endorsement of the younger British royals – ‘Too often we think mental-health problems are things that happen to other people’, says Prince Harry – World Mental Health Day and other ‘awareness-raising’ initiatives create an impression of a growing crisis.

It’s not that there isn’t a problem; there clearly is. The UK Local Government Association (LGA) worries that ‘substantial numbers’ of children are suffering with anxiety, depression and self-harm, and that many more obsess over their body image, exam stress and the perils of social media (a concern heightened by Todd’s tragic case).

A report from the children’s commissioner for England found that 28 per cent of children referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) do not receive any service at all. Of particular concern are the 3,000 children and young people (around a quarter of all referrals) with a life-threatening condition (such as self-harm, psychosis, severe depression, anorexia and suicidal tendencies). Only 14 per cent of these children are able to access services, and 51 per cent are left to languish on waiting lists, sometimes for months.

However, the root of the problem is being misdiagnosed. The expansion of the definition of what it means to be mentally ill is key here. Indeed, as the frequent references to bullying and exams should make clear, young people’s emotional ‘wellbeing’ and their ability to cope with troubling but very normal parts of childhood are now being collapsed into the alleged mental-health crisis – putting pressure on services as a result.

In response to the children’s commissioner’s report questioning local CAMHS’ ‘failure’ to provide services to all young people who attend, the Yorkshire and the Humber CAMHS had this to say: ‘Our CAMHS do not offer services for normal reactions to adverse life events – eg, parental separation/bereavement or for normal child-development difficulties.’

This is surely the right approach. Not simply as a way of coping with the pressure exerted on mental-health services, but as a challenge to an increasingly therapy-seeking culture. The LGA report, however, shows that this response is atypical. Instead of making the case against the tendency to over-refer – in light of how hard-up local authorities are – the authors of the report argue that there needs to be more ‘identifying and supporting of families experiencing problems’. ‘As young people grow older’, the report continues, ‘the potential hurdles and the challenges to their resilience increase’.

Yes – it is called growing up.

Campaigners are encouraging the young to out themselves as mentally or emotionally unwell. They are claiming mental health is a taboo subject, despite the fact that everyone from royalty down is talking about it endlessly. When they say there is a mental-health crisis, they are absolutely right. There is a crisis. And it is one of their own making.

Homelessness – Bricks and Mortar and More Besides

First published in Huffington Post

The complexity of the homelessness problem is undeniable and its causes are multiple: families evicted from their homes into B&Bs, people falling foul of the benefits system, or on the run from an abusive partner; youngsters leaving the care system, or people discharged from mental health wards or thrown out of their asylum accommodation on being granted refugee status. These are just some of the reasons people find themselves homeless. According to former shadow housing minister John Healey, nearly 80,000 families in England could be made homeless by 2020. In Scotland nearly 30,000 households were made homeless last year. In Northern Ireland 20,000 households are affected.

While building enough houses for people to live in really is something we should have mastered by now, the homeless problem has always been about more than just bricks and mortar. Difficulties in people’s lives that cause them to become homeless may have nothing to do with the wider housing problem as such, except in the sense that as a consequence of those difficulties they have nowhere to live. It is their non-housing related circumstances, in other words, that have brought them to a housing crisis.

Nevertheless, if they are to find somewhere to live we need to get beyond the current housing policy impasse. It is still dominated by a late Cold War era battle of the tenures. The left argue for social housing as the best way to accommodate the poor and needy; and the right call for the sale of those state-owned properties in favour of increasing home ownership. Nobody much likes the private rental sector – ironically enough given that it’s what most people live in. According to PwC, in 2000 60% of Londoners owned (or at least the bank owned) their own home. This is projected to fall to 40% by 2025 if current trends continue. But both policies and their associated visions – of a council house for life vs. the home-owning democracy – have failed. Instead we have impossibly lengthy waiting lists to a run-down and residualised stock; and impossibly high house prices (and spiralling rents) that increasingly few can afford.

And so we are left with posturing and tinkering at the edges. The Communities and Local Government Select Committee has produced a report concluding that the homeless are ‘badly treated’ by local authorities who – they argue – should have a legal duty imposed upon them to support and advise those looking for somewhere to live. Likewise, John Healey argues that there is a need to ‘strengthen the law to help prevent homelessness happening in the first place, as Labour has done in Wales’. Which may sound reasonable, but local authorities rightly respond that they don’t have the resources or the powers to do this anymore. You can’t legislate against homelessness by forcing councils to provide stock that they don’t have and can’t build. Inevitably what’s left is highly undesirable.

Homeless charities and others call for a ‘strong housing safety net’ and ‘preventative help’, which sounds fair enough. But it won’t solve the problem; it will only provide a temporary buffer for those at risk of losing their homes. Likewise the mantra that we need more affordable housing can hardly be objected to; but it is pretty meaningless in today’s hyper-inflated housing market. Building more houses and lots of them is our best chance of solving the affordability problem – and that should be done across the tenures. Otherwise all that is left for the state to do is interfere in people’s personal lives – something it won’t hesitate to do. There is a lot to recommend ‘sustaining’ people in their homes, helping them with their rent or brokering their relationship with their landlords. But why stop at people’s relationships with their landlords? One reason people become homeless is because of problems in their relationships with each other. The official figures show that sharing and marital breakdown is the single biggest cause of homelessness in Northern Ireland. Surely it’s not housing these people need, its relationship advice? So the logic goes.

No. Instead of tinkering and meddling we need bold policy. We should free developers from the unnecessary constraints imposed by planning law, and free-up planners to plan more and better housing. Local Authorities and Housing Associations should be encouraged to build instead of their stock being diminished by a state imposed ‘right to buy’; and the local state (with its PSPOs) should get off the backs of the homeless too. So let’s loosen the constraints and target resources where they are most badly needed. That way we might both get more houses built and start to address the difficulties faced by those in desperate need.

Inequality? What Inequality?

First published in Huffington Post

If you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.

This is what our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, said before walking through the door of Number 10 Downing Street last month. Jeremy Corbyn, in a speech launching his defence of the Labour Party leadership, had this to say:

The injustices that scar society today are not those of 1945 … Want, Squalor, Idleness, Disease and Ignorance … And they have changed since I first entered Parliament in 1983…Today what is holding people back above all are … Inequality… Neglect … Insecurity … Prejudice … and Discrimination …

And his opponent in that contest, Owen Jones, said he would rewrite the party’s Clause4 ‘to put tackling inequality right at the heart of everything that we do’.

So is inequality a spectre (to misquote Karl Marx) that is haunting the UK?

According to Tom Bailey, who I have invited to speak on the topic, ‘The past few decades have seen a dizzying amount of the world lifted out of poverty’. This is a consequence of economic growth, he argues, in places like China where 500 million people who were living in poverty are no longer doing so. As a result global inequality has actually fallen. So what is meant by inequality today? If we are increasingly equal and people are being pulled out of poverty at unprecedented rates, why are leftists and conservatives alike so obsessed with it?

How desirable, even, is equality? In the UK we were at our most equal in 1979, after four decades in which the gap in earnings got progressively narrower. At the outbreak of the second world war just over a third of the national income went to the top 10% of the population. Forty years later they accounted for just over a fifth of the national income and the poorest were a bit better off than they were before. While this may sound like a comparative utopia it is perhaps worth remembering that this was also a time of profound crisis and division in the country. The world economy was in turmoil and the British state was about to stamp on striking workers and rioting inner-city youth.

More to the point for all the focus on relative poverty by campaigners, we are absolutely better off now than we were back then. Even the poorest are nowhere near as poor as they were. This may seem an obvious point but it is continually lost on those who seem to think we’ve never had it so bad.

But what of gender inequality in the workplace? The ‘reviewing’ of Kevin Roberts’ position as Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi for saying it isn’t a problem is surely evidence enough that it is? Well, no. As Joanna Williams argues, ‘the gender pay gap is dead’. If you compare like with like, the so-called glass ceiling is a myth. The assertion that women are getting a bad deal at work is a distraction from what really does hold them back – a lack of affordable childcare. The misplaced focus on women’s fast-diminishing inequality in the workplace also ignores the longstanding decline of traditionally male-dominated industries and the rise of the more female-friendly service sector in its place. The UK and indeed the world is less sexist than ever. The leading role of women in some of the planet’s most powerful jobs, from Christine Lagarde and Hilary Clinton to Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, should make that obvious.

That’s not to say all is well. Far from it. But rolling out the same old rhetoric about capitalist excess, exploited workers and untold misery – when capitalists have never been so risk-averse, unproductive and keen to virtue signal; and the ill-effects of their system so mitigated by state intervention – makes no sense. We are living through a period not only of longstanding economic stagnation but also of political cluelessness about what to do about it. It is surely more important – especially now, post-Brexit, when the political class is running for cover – that we have a national debate on how we go about building a more prosperous future, not worrying over the dividing up of what little wealth is being generated now.

From Bowie to Brexit in the Bastille Spirit

First published in Huffington Post

How quickly things can change. That sense of possibility we had just a few days ago is already in danger of dissipating. The political class is closing ranks. The Tories’ anointing of Theresa May as their (and our) unelected leader, and an attempted slow motion coup in the Labour Party, have the same object in mind. Saving themselves and putting a lid on the popular sentiment that was, to their mutual horror, released by the Brexit vote.

Having said that, when the man who once sang about ‘ch-ch-ch-ch-changes’ unexpectedly died at the beginning of the year, that sense of possibility resided very much in the past. We were nostalgic for celebrity representatives of a generation that young Remainers have more recently been hurling abuse at as selfish EU-wreckers. As Mick Hume, journalist and editor-at-large of spiked-online, describedthis icon in his early 70s heyday: ‘Bowie emerged as the spirit of that rebellious age in a dayglow jumpsuit’. Jennie Bristow, author of the excellent Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict, thinks our response to the ‘Boomer deaths’ that seemed to dominate the first half of 2016 was not just a response to the tragic passing of individuals held in popular affection but also to an overwhelming sense that ‘the spirit of the Sixties seems to be retiring as well.’

So is today’s generation, more likely to blame the Boomers for their problems than be inspired by them, really up to the task of taking on the political class? The fact that the Pretty Things rather than ‘driving their mammas and papas insane’ joined the March for Europe demanding that the EU Referendum result be overturned doesn’t bode well. The setting up of a ‘Brexit Department’, albeit headed up by the estimable David Davies, may be designed to put like-minds at rest, but is turning a popular decision into a drawn-out technocratic process requiring its own department and minister really what we want? As campaigner Tom Slater put it there is a real danger that without sustained pressure from without the unwanted result will be happily ‘kicked into the long grass’. An outcome that would be in keeping with our newly crowned prime minister’s promise to insulate the political class from the electorate until 2020. Will all be Hunky Dory in the end as May puts into action her words that ‘Brexit is Brexit’? Or are the signs ominous and the triggering of Article 50 that will put the nation’s decision in irreversible motion a distant or even endangered prospect? Either way they won’t pursue the matter in the same democratic spirit that forced it so reluctantly upon them.

One thing is for sure though, British politics has changed for good and will never be quite the same again. The political elite have been exposed as just that – with no real connection to the people on whose behalf they have disingenuously claimed to speak. The result of the Referendum vs their desire to remain in the EU Club has made that clearer than ever. We’re not so apathetic. When finally presented with a genuine political choice of real consequence, we made our view known. But faced with the biggest popular mandate in the UK’s political history, we were dismissed as too old, bigoted, or emotional to know what we were doing. We just don’t understand the repercussions said Labour peer Oona King in a debate she had triggered on holding a second referendum. Speaking in the House of Lords it would be ‘only fair and democratic’ she said. The irony.

What looked like being a year in which we rather morbidly obsessed over what and who has passed could be the start of a new era – a taster of what’s to come. Instead of looking back at a roll call of dead celebrities, as grim onlookers; we have found ourselves playing a part in the throwing out of the old and moribund party politics, and with the prospect of ushering in something new to take its place. Who’d have thought that even a few weeks ago? And the barbaric attack in Nice on people celebrating Bastille Day is a reminder that there is nothing intrinsically inward-looking about fighting for freedom and democracy. It is a universal aspiration that needs to be shouted ever more loudly across the continent.

The collapse of the political class in the face of their popular rejection is a historic moment. It’s not quite 1789. Not yet at least. But what started as a year filled with a sort of grief for what has gone now promises excitement over what is to come. There is reason to be optimistic about what the future might hold. The fear and pessimism that has characterised recent times, and that continues to grip and paralyse our political culture, can and should be relegated to the past.