I read the report of the argument between Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, and Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, in the Guardian on Saturday, with dismay. The reaction of Simon Stevens and NHSE shows a frightening lack of interest or care for the growing deterioration in the mental health of our nation’s children and young people.
We are bombarded every day by statistics such as suicide being the biggest killer in young men aged between 15 and 25, plus the dramatic increases in eating disorders in young men. Young women are equally showing signs of depression, anxiety, self harm, and body dysmorphia much earlier.
It is well known that these symptoms, which are likely to blight the lives of these young people, have their origins in early childhood. Research indicates that adverse childhood experiences (ACE) have an impact not only on mental health over a lifetime but on their physical health too. A score of 4 on the ACE scale (10 point scale) will take 20 years off your life! Nine percent of the U.K. population will score four or more, which makes this a big public health crisis. WHO has stated this is the biggest public health threat of our time.
Why is it not possible to invest in addressing the root causes, in terms of research but also and more simply, listening to the professionals and affected families? The answer to addressing mental wellbeing is not waiting for a crisis or symptoms to develop but helping the children and young people to deal with the stress they encounter in the family, in schools and in society.
Almost all the services and support for children and young people targets the individual rather than the environment in which children grow and develop. Surely it’s not fair that the burden falls on the shoulders of the people with least capacity to make any change in their circumstances. Once symptoms appear, counselling and support will be of significant benefit but early intervention which alleviates the stress would be cheaper and more effective.
Take school as an example, this is where we find children and it’s also where stress accumulates if we are not attentive to what comes with the child — their home circumstances. Many families in the UK have significant difficulties which cause their children to come to school very stressed and preoccupied. The issues include physical and mental ill health (an estimated 3.4 million children have a parent with a mental illness) for example.
The school system currently focuses almost exclusively on attainment, which is important, but cognitive development is not separate from emotional development. Unhappy, stressed children cannot learn. This situation is exacerbated by the stress on teachers who are bombarded with targets and processes which makes them ‘resigned’ if not resign.
There are things that can be done and we know how to do them but we don’t have the will to address the root causes, we prefer treatment and crisis because it calls for big speeches and grandstanding while the low cost alternatives require real commitment and collaboration, not heroic speeches and grand plans.