Nutshell: we’re all doomed unless we collectively recognise what is really going on and take active steps to do something about it.
Frank began by going through some statistics, highlighting the massive increase in the use of mental health as a reason for making claims upon an already stretched system. Something like 15% increase in a year which is interesting because it shows that we haven’t reached a peak in terms of accommodating mental health issues. What’s also interesting is that according to Frank’s analysis all of the media claims are that mental health among young people is getting worse and that the language used is overly inflated, with frequent warnings that all student will be, for example, ‘damaged for life’ by their experiences at school. The fact that all claims in the media point to mass worsening of mental health should make us all skeptical and this is where Frank takes us, questioning the narrative and really thinking about whether our youngest generation is as mentally ill as everyone believes. This was a really interesting talk.
Frank went on to highlight a few common beliefs within the population that contribute to our collective concern about mental health. Firstly, that children are increasingly defined by their vulnerability and secondly, that in order to help them grow up to be resilient and happy people, we need to protect them from all pressure. I certainly see that thread of concern and belief weave its way through all sorts of aspects of education. Thankfully, I’m old fashioned and old enough to know that it is the difficult experiences that make you stronger and this influences how I lead my year groups: we say yes to competition, yes to high expectations, yes to being held to account and challenged, yes to working hard (regardless of one’s own troubles at the time) and yes to doing lots of practice. However, much of this narrative of vulnerability and protection from even the slightest of stresses permeates aspects of education I have no choice but to comply with. Safeguarding is one such role where I think we are in danger of collectively putting a lid on what disadvantaged children can achieve by automatically turning them all into potential ‘customers’. I’m being serious here, but won’t go into that right now.
Our attention was drawn to how the typical problems of childhood have been co-opted and redefined with medical language. Frank gave us a great example of how, when we were young, some of us would bunk off from school on a regular basis. Back then it was called truanting and the assumption was that we were choosing to not do the right thing, and that the solution was to ensure we stopped bunking off of school. Nowadays, truancy has been co-opted so that now we have ‘school phobia’ with the result that children who are given this pseudo-diagnosis then get to have their ‘need’ to bunk off rubber stamped by the system. As one teacher pointed out, this makes it very hard for them to challenge children who have some kind of diagnosed condition, which undermines their authority and makes it very difficult for them to just teach. The whole system, including the teachers within it, lowers its standards and expectations of these children who happen to be experiencing a normal teenage life and yet are led to believe they are mentally ill. Those children who have had their life experiences pathologised are also looking at getting less out of their academic education than others. Who are these children and which parts of our society do they tend to hail from? We should all be really concerned about this.
Frank then described something called ‘concept creep’ for terms frequently used as part of the therapeutic industry’s expanding remit. Apparently, concept creep can be applied downwards (to less and less stressful experiences) and outwards (to capture a wider variety of everyday experiences). For example, ‘trauma’ used to be applied to only the most severe of life experiences, but is now casually applied to normal experiences such as having to leave one’s parent at the beginning of the school day. I hear the word ‘trauma’ quite often in my work as a school leader. For school leaders and business managers, there is an additional headache in that all this concern and provision for mental health issues in the school is very expensive. Further, Frank drew our attention to some stark statistics about the dramatic increase in mental health interventions in the U.S with the result that instead of reducing mental health issues in the younger population, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children identified as having mental health problems. This ties in with my observation that the more you do for people, the less they do for themselves.
Frank’s closing thoughts on this were very sobering indeed. The statistics, analysis of rhetoric and function creep of the ‘mental health crisis’ points to a manufactured problem that has then become very real. This is because children are being socialised into interpreting their everyday experiences through the prism of attention to feelings and casual acceptance of all stress being a flag for mental health; over the years, this is making children genuinely mentally ill. My comment to the crowd was an anecdote from a recent safeguarding course I attended in which an example of ‘best practice’ was promoted. There was a school teacher who, in her reception year classroom, had set up individual, named pockets on a wall and children were asked to reflect on each activity and choose a ‘face’ every so often to put in their ‘pocket’ indicating how happy or sad they were at the time. The system was that as soon as a child felt a bit sad about something or someone, a TA would be able to swoop in and attend to their feelings. Again, this is part of the whole ‘children must never feel stress’ narrative, but now co-opted into the safeguarding system as a way of identifying and helping children who might be indicating to us that something is going on at home.
My final thoughts at the end of this session were that I think school leaders need to be more courageous about highlighting and challenging this situation, not least because it threatens to burden teachers with an additional workload that they absolutely should not be burdened with, but also because this situation will stop many of our young people from coping with adult life as well as ruining their chances of academic achievement.
Who’s with me?