A society should be judged by how it treats its children. A country that fails to invest in its children is imperilling its future. And that’s why we should all be alarmed by the crisis of mental health among Britain’s girls and boys – and the chronic lack of support to overcome it.
Nearly a quarter of a million young people are receiving specialist health care for mental distress, ranging from depression to eating disorders. Disturbingly, it is a crisis that is getting worse: Childline reports a doubling in five years of the number of children contemplating suicide. But the services simply aren’t there to support them. A Guardian poll finds that seven out of 10 specialist nurses believe mental health services for children and adolescents are inadequate, and 43% believe the services are actually getting worse. Overwhelmingly, a lack of nurses and delays in appointments are identified as the main culprits. The price of this failure is our children’s wellbeing – and, more horrifyingly, even their lives.
It is easier to diagnose a crisis than to cure it, of course. Part of the problem is the expectations society places on our children: changing them is necessary, but will not be easy. Research by Girlguiding finds that just 61% of girls and young women aged between seven and 21 are happy with their bodies, a sharp decline from 73% in 2011. That over a third of girls aged between seven and 10 say that they are made to feel their looks were the most important thing, or that 38% felt they were not pretty enough, is chilling. For those aged between 11 and 21, an astonishing 80% felt looks were the most important thing about them. Here are the consequences of a sexist society that imposes impossible standards that even little girls are expected to abide by.
Gender expectations damage boys, too. A rigid and unreconstructed form of masculinity is enforced, sometimes brutally, in the playground. Boys deemed to be insufficiently manly face being abused as “girls” or “gays”. Speaking about mental distress is certainly not seen as “manly” – it is “weak” – and that there are more boys in contact with mental health services is striking.
Yes, we need investment in services. But there must be a remorseless focus on what drives children to mental distress in the first place. Overcrowded and poor housing. Poor diet. Lack of exercise. Family conflict. The stresses of poverty, from internalised shame to being conscious of not having the same opportunities as other children. Consumer capitalism, which judges and defines children by what trainers they wear. An educational culture obsessed with exams. If we want a society that promotes happiness and wellbeing among children, these are all problems that have to be addressed. How tragic, then, that life is being made harder for children by both government policy and ever harsher attitudes and expectations. The children will suffer for it, and so will our country’s future.
Acknowledgement: Owen Jones, Guardian, 4 October 16