Barely a week goes by in the UK at the moment without some discussion on the rising problems of poor mental health, particularly amongst our young people. August also happens to be exam results month when there is often a spike in feelings of anxiety, stress and worthlessness so the stage is set for tonight’s panel to discuss whether or not we are facing a crisis and if so, what can we do about it?
Chair for the evening is Professor of psychological medicine, Simon Wessely, who injects some humour into what is otherwise a very sobering topic. He is joined on stage by Claire Fox – writer, politician and Academy of Ideas director, Times columnist Suzi Godson, Helen Minnis who is Professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Glasgow University and John Tomsett – headteacher at Huntington School in York.
It is a fascinating discussion and although it initially seems there may be some disagreement ultimately the themes and ideas discussed by the panellists are all largely agreed upon. What perhaps surprises the audience most is the statistic from Wessely that the only increase in any mental health condition in any demographic in recent years is a 7% spike in anxiety and depression in young women between the ages of 16 and 24. Social media comes under fire but there is no hard evidence to suggest this is the case, early childhood experiences are mentioned but Minnis explains that we could therefore assume that all young children with childhood trauma would go on to suffer mental illness but it is in fact only 50%. Why?
The idea of resilience is the one idea that keeps being returned to. Fox believes young people today are too inward looking, narcissistic and that the adults around them are fuelling a fire by putting our fears onto young people. It may sound harsh but all of it has truth in it. Children are not taking as many risks as they used to, believe they have a right to happiness and success and all the things that previous generations worked for and have a preoccupation with what the world owes them. The rest of the panel find it difficult to disagree although the mental health crisis is clearly a complex one.
As a society we are talking more about out mental health, there are pressures put on young people to be successful with things like rising University entrance requirements, there will always be an impact due to factors like bullying and all of the connectivity we now have at our disposal is actually making us less connected than ever. Families are now nuclear rather than community based and Minnis notes that in cultures where multi-generations of families are supporting each other there are lower rates of mental illness.
As the conversation comes to a close John Tomsett leaves the audience with one simple idea he has adopted in his own school to start to turn the tide. Every teacher says “hello” to every student every day. It is forming relationships which may just be the best and easiest way to ensure we are not still talking about a rising crisis in the years to come.