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.

A royal panic about children’s mental health

First published in sp!ked

Last Sunday was Father’s Day in the UK, and Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, took a break from celebrating the joys of family life to warn us about the state of our children’s mental health. Father’s Day was also, he wrote in an article for the Sunday Express, ‘a time to reflect on my responsibility to look after not just the physical health of my two children, but to treat their mental needs as just as important a priority’.

His wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, shares a similar sentiment. During her stint guest editing the Huffington Post last year, she wrote that children’s mental health is ‘every bit as important as their physical health’. But Will and Kate’s concern is no revelation. The royals’ demand for what policymakers call a ‘parity of esteem’ for physical and mental health is part of a very contemporary, albeit maddening, obsession.

‘A fifth of children will have a mental-health issue by their 11th birthday. And, left unresolved, those mental-health issues can alter the course of a child’s life forever’, the prince tells us. But all is not as gloomy as he would have us believe. The figures are real enough, but many of the maladies included are not really serious mental-health problems. We are not talking, for the most part, about schizophrenia or clinical depression. It is emotional, behavioural and so-called conduct disorders that are being diagnosed in increasing numbers.

The expansion of the diagnosis (and self-diagnosis) of mental-health problems in children and young adults marks a dangerous shift. Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, has argued that this is part of a wider phenomenon whereby kids are being encouraged to feel anxious and vulnerable about pretty much everything. We have raised ‘Generation Snowflake’, she argues, by promoting a culture of self-esteem in schools that enfeebles young people and encourages them to interpret normal emotions as signs of mental illness.

Indeed, even Natasha Devon, the former government children’s mental-health tsar, admitted that the current definitions of some mental illnesses ‘sound a lot like being a teenager’. But, according to Devon, this blurring of the boundaries between the normal and the abnormal is ‘something to celebrate’, in that it allows children to speak out about their problems. ‘Teaching children to suck it up and soldier on’, she says, is a form of ‘emotional inauthenticity’.

This is worrying. Children’s emotional lives are being colonised, their healthy emotions recast as forms of mental illness, at the very same time that child and adolescent mental-health services are starved of resources. The consequence of all of this is healthy children being stopped from growing into capable adults and mentally ill children being denied the help they so desperately need.

The real crisis here is among adults, not children. We are projecting a contemporary obsession with mental-health on to children, and coddling them as a result. It is as if we can no longer discern the emotional ups and downs that are part and parcel of growing up from serious mental-health problems that require expert help. This confusion is now so widespread, it’s even affected our supposedly stiff-upper-lipped royals.

Homelessness – Accommodating to Lowered Expectations

First published in Huffington Post

Courtney Cox and David Beckham have recently drawn attention to those sleeping rough (or at least to their part in drawing our attention to them). And rightly too. There were 1,768 people sleeping rough in England in autumn 2010. This more than doubled to 3,569 in 2015. Over that same period, says the National Audit Office, the funding available to support the homeless has nearly halved. According to homeless charity St Mungo’s, around half of rough sleepers suffer from mental health problems.

So the former Friends star on a recent visit to Manchester signed the sleeping bag of a man called Scott. Scott turned out to be an autograph hunter – he also had Pete Doherty’s – happily upending the usual victim narrative. According to a celebrity gossip piece, when Beckham, on a family visit to a gourmet burger bar in Chelsea, ‘handed the burger to the homeless man … the guy’s face lit up’. Judging by the accompanying photo this is because he also gave him his bottle of beer. Whether cynically playing to the cameras or just a kindly gesture (I’d like to think the latter), good on the former footballer turned clothes horse for giving the man something that moralisers would no doubt disapprove of.

But as anybody working in the housing sector will tell you, there is more to homelessness than the people you see out sleeping on the streets. As Shelter have highlighted, families are increasingly temporarily housed many miles away from where they lived prior to losing their homes – disrupting family, community and working life, and their kids’ education too. In 2010 5,330 households were temporarily housed ‘out of area’, more than tripling to 17,150 in 2015. Nine out of ten of these families are from London, half housed ‘out of area’ and half of these outside London, say the charity. The government insists that ‘councils have a legal duty to ensure that any temporary accommodation they offer is safe and suitable for the family concerned’. But the charity is sympathetic to local authorities’ predicament, recognising that they are ‘overstretched’ by an ever diminished housing stock and rising levels of need.

Spelthorne Borough Council in Surrey is to be commended for its imaginative response to the crisis. It has reportedly bought a hotel at a cost of £2 million to accommodate up to twenty ‘households’. It might sound a lot but it’s not a bad investment. Especially when you consider that the Council spent nearly half a million on providing temporary accommodation just last year. But it is an increasingly big ask of any one part of the system to solve the problem, not least because there is more than one housing crisis. ‘Homelessness’ is a multi-faceted phenomenon best understood as both part of, and yet bigger than, the wider housing problem. That wider problem being that there are not enough houses to go around. Added into the mix of rising rents, caps to and reforms of benefits (from the freezing of housing benefit to tougher sanctions on unemployment benefit) in a context of already falling living standards brought about by longstanding economic stagnation and recent economic crises; are the multiple and various crises that people experience at a personal level. (As St Mungo’s argue, what many living on the streets need more than anything is specialist mental health support and housing options when they’re discharged from hospital.)

And on top of all that is a political culture that has accommodated to lowered expectations (rather than accommodating people), while bringing into being a therapy state that, paradoxically, fails to target resources where they are most needed. And fails to generate the policy solutions needed to tackle any of the housing crises with which it is faced. With increasing numbers of single people on the streets and families living in temporary accommodation, and many, many more struggling to afford their rent or mortgage, policymakers urgently need to do both of those things.

We need real public health

From pronouncements from the UK’s chief medical officers last week on how many units of alcohol it is safe to drink (none apparently) to the ongoing panic-mongering about the non-existent dangers of vaping – which, I’d argue, is potentially the biggest contributor to improving the public’s health in a generation – public-health busybodies have been making a bit of a show of themselves recently. They seem hell-bent on banning anything that even looks like a threat to public health – even when it plainly isn’t.

But what is public health anyway? Is it really about guilt-tripping us over our festive indulgences this Dry January? Or about banning two-for-one food promotions and calling for a sugar tax to tackle obesity? Or about supporting mothers to breastfeed their babies in public? Well, public health used to be about scientific breakthroughs, sanitation and slum-clearance. It was about building massive infrastructure like the sewers that carried away the stench and disease that blighted 19th-century London. It was about mass vaccination against once-killer diseases. In other words, it was about big, far-reaching changes that helped us to live longer, happier, healthier lives.

Today’s campaigners, by contrast, are obsessed with intervening in the minutiae of our once-private, everyday lives. Even the genuinely big threats to our health, like diabetes, which is thought to affect more than four million people in Britain, are framed as a problem of lifestyle, and become another opportunity to lecture the obese masses. Diabetes is not, according to today’s public-health campaigners, a challenge to be met by medical science – not to mention a side effect of living in an ageing and well-fed society, made possible in no small part by historic public-health interventions. Instead, they argue, on very dubious grounds, that our unhealthy diets, lifestyles and childrearing choices will lead to disease, death and disadvantage. That is, unless the fear and anxiety generated by public-health campaigns (otherwise known as ‘awareness-raising’) persuade us to take the official advice and change our ways.

Indeed, what really drives the officially endorsed breast-is-best campaign is not support for women’s right to breastfeed – it is contempt for women’s right to bottle-feed – the allegedly less-healthy alternative. There is no campaign to destigmatise those mothers who would rather not go through the discomfort and exhaustion of ‘natural’ feeding, and who opt for the convenience of bottle-feeding their babies with formula milk instead.

Not only is this sort of hectoring objectionable in itself, but this petty, paternalistic turn, in which public health has become synonymous with intrusive meddling in people’s lives, is also, to my mind, not a good use of public money. It was announced in the last Comprehensive Spending Review that the NHS budget is to rise over the next few years – not least to get cash to the increasing numbers of hospital trusts which are in serious financial trouble. However, the £15 billion of the Department of Health’s annual £116 billion budget which is spent on particular departments and quangos, including Health Education England and Public Health England, is to be cut by a quarter.

It is not clear how this will impact on public-health activities. Public health is more than the projects backed by the Department of Health, with other government departments and the charity sector also being keen advocates of protecting us from ourselves. But the threat of cuts to student nurses’ bursaries, which brought them on to the streets at the weekend, can only make the existing nurse shortage that much worse. Add to that the junior doctors’ strike over seven-day working, planned for tomorrow, and you get a sense of the real crisis facing the public’s health.

While blaming people’s unhealthy lifestyles for the crisis in the NHS is commonplace, there is a growing recognition that practical initiatives designed to prevent ill-health can also have a real impact on the wider health economy. By, for instance, reducing the incidence of falls and infections among the older population, or improving the management of long-term conditions, which too often end in a deterioration that can easily rob people of their independence, we can avoid the expense of hospital admissions and residential care down the line.

Public health as it stands today rides roughshod over people’s liberty. And this is all despite the fact that it is our longevity, rather than our lifestyles, which poses the biggest challenge to provision today. It is the side-effects of getting older, brought about by the past gains of public health, and the costs that come with treating serious conditions that people used to die from, that are responsible for bankrupting the system.

Beyond the billions supposedly spent on it, the biggest cost of public health today is the continual undermining of personal autonomy and our capacity to make our own choices. The sooner public health stops patronising people, leaves us alone to run our own lives and gets back to focusing on those interventions that really make a difference, the better.

First published in Spiked

Are the Kids Really Going Mad?

“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.

First published in Huffington Post