When I first saw the headlines reporting on the increase of children as young as five being treated for anxiety and depression; I guess I had a similar response to most people. I felt sad about the loss of traditional childhood in our modern society, concern for the future and the usual wondering of how far the media was pushing the statistics just to get a news story. Perhaps that’s all there is to it, an attention grabbing headline? A short article with shocking statistics and a personal experience story that we glance over but simply push to the back of our minds as we rush to get on with our busy day to day lives because it doesn’t really affect us, does it?
It didn’t quite work that way for me. Maybe that’s because of my training and experience as a youth worker or my personal experience of depression as an adolescent and young adult but I couldn’t get the article out of my mind. Then I caught a glimpse of an advertisement on a tube station platform for Jeanette Winterson’s new novel “Why be happy when you could be normal?” and it got me thinking about the issues surrounding the news story even more. (I should mention that I’ve not read the novel and am simply judging a book by its cover out of context here rather than any comments on the book itself.)
My first concern would be surrounding the diagnosis of mental illness in someone so young. Is this perhaps ascribing a label to a child that they may go on to carry for the rest of their lives? We already know that kids are learning and growing so fast in all areas both physically and mentally. They soak up the environments they find themselves in with little or no control over them. It’s already a concern that children are growing up too fast in a highly stressful, over sexualised, uncertain world. Is placing a diagnosis of depression on them going to help or hinder them in aspiring to the great things we all wish for them?
The story of ‘Jack’ highlighted in the BBC News article tells us that he has been seen by a child behaviour specialist since he was 18 months old. Of course we can’t know the full circumstances and symptoms which lead to this being necessary but I can’t help wondering what our response would have been even a generation ago. Perhaps our analysis of him dangling the toys out of the window would have encouraged us that he’s adventurous or daring rather than a manifestation of his own insecurities. Have we gone too far in our analysis of behaviour and feelings and started to forget the simple things? Should kids be out climbing trees, making dens and even (dare I say it?) having invisible friends rather than spending time in a psychologists office?
Of course I am not rejecting the fact that there are children and adolescents who do need support/treatment for very real mental health issues. I am so glad that services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) are there to support our children and adolescents. I just wonder whether we might be too keen to place a diagnosis or medicate children who may simply be struggling to work out their place in the world, aren’t most adults still trying to do the same?
We have seen recently from documentaries like ’56 Up’ that the saying “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man” can in some cases be scarily true! Children and young people are adaptable; this also means that they’re incredibly malleable and even from a very young age can be moulded into the kind of adult they might become. As the article suggests, with one in ten of children aged between 5 and 16 having a clinically diagnosable mental health problem; should we be doing more to prevent that 1 in 10 increasing to 1 in 4 by the time these young people become adults?
Amazing work is being done by organisations like ‘Young Minds’ and the ‘Child and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition’ as well as inspiring new smaller initiatives by young people themselves like ‘You Must Be Mental’, ‘It’s OK Campaign’ and many blogs sharing young people’s personal stories of their own experience of mental illness.
We have come a long way in developing effective psychological treatments for children and young people who are struggling. Research around therapies such as telephone based coaching sessions and web based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has proved encouraging. The ‘All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image’ suggests that mandatory sessions on body image and self-esteem should be part of primary and secondary education. It is a really good start but why stop there? Lessons on stress management, emotional literacy and positive mental health awareness could also go some way towards a prevention rather than cure attitude. Is it not better to teach children how to care for their emotional/mental health than face the dilemma of increasing numbers suffering from mental ill health and working out how to treat them when it has got to that point?
Of course we are in an era of austerity and funding for all kinds of projects working with children and young people is being cut. However, there is some good news. In February the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg and Health Minister Paul Burstow announced that the children and young people’s arm of “Improving Access to Psychological Therapy” (CYP IAPT) will receive an extra £22 million investment over the next 3 years. The funding will go towards extending the geographical reach of the project and more training (including e-learning packages) for professionals on further therapies. More information can be found here. This can only be good.
So finally, returning to the BBC article warning us that more children are being treated for depression and anxiety, including increasing prescriptions of Fluoxetine (Prozac) of under 18’s. I hope that it does cause you to stop and think if only for a moment, about what we as a society might be able to do about it. Just thinking is a step in the right direction. As someone working with children/young people and someone who knows personally how valuable support services really can be, I am hopeful for the future despite the bleak sounding headlines.
Mental health is being talked about more than ever before and gradually society is beginning to recognise that we all sit somewhere on the spectrum. I just hope that it doesn’t take too long before we really start acting on promoting positive mental well-being and more effective therapeutic solutions for our children and young people. They have so much potential and can achieve incredible things in their lifetimes so it’s vital that parents/guardians, schools, youth/mental health services and society as a whole works towards providing the best environment possible to give them the best start to their lives that we can.
It’s said a lot and may sound twee, but it is true, they’ll be the ones running the country when we’re old and need looking after ourselves!
But don’t just listen to me, what do you think?
Other sources I read surrounding the topic: