Author and mental health campaigner, Natasha Devon MBE spoke to Stand Up Magazine about how children’s mental health is being treated in the UK.
In the digital age especially, it feels like there are visibility days every other week. Days and weeks to give prominence to causes and issues which are often stigmatised into silence. In particular, mental health has garnered much attention over the years. With ‘time to talk’ campaigns, and people calling for us to speak openly about mental health, it should signify a greater shift in society to show that we now want to tackle mental health issues. However, when the surface is scratched, not much has changed at all.
Under the Coalition Government, mental health services were cut by around 8%. The bottom line is that less money equals fewer support services. Between 2010-15 children’s mental health services faced spending cuts of £50 million, and in 2017, one survey claimed that approximately one third of children’s mental health services faced cuts or even closure.
Children’s mental health is vital. If young people struggle with their mental health and don’t receive support, they’re more likely to carry those conditions and anxieties through into adulthood. Natasha Devon MBE, is an author and mental health campaigner with a new book, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental due for release in May. She regularly gives talks on mental health in schools and universities, and believes it is essential that more is done to support children’s mental health.
“The average onset age for common mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders and depression is adolescence,” says Natasha. “And yet we still spend on average fourteen times more on adult services than we do on CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services).
“CAMHS are woefully over stretched, with thresholds (meaning the symptoms you need to exhibit in order to qualify for treatment) getting higher and higher as they struggle to cope with the demand. The government pledged to put £1.4 billion into young people’s mental health over a five-year period but it’s not ring-fenced, meaning that often it isn’t reaching the people who need it on the ground.”
Governments generally draw scepticism for their rates of releasing funding, but the statistics show that mental health services are struggling, and that services for young people are being impacted and threatened by austerity. Against a backdrop of cuts, is mental health really on the political agenda?
“This is just my opinion, but my experience is that politicians pander to whoever’s vote they think they can realistically get rather than taking a broad view of what is best for the whole of society,” says Natasha. “Hence young people, who are predominantly left-learning, are largely ignored when a right wing government is in charge. You’ll see that a lot of the mental health focussed endeavours pushed forward by the departments for education and health under the current regime are of most benefit to middle class children, which is a way of buttering up their middle-class parents.
“More than a million children currently live in poverty, 2.3 million are officially classed as poor and a study from Oxford University showed this was set to rise by 23% by 2020, with warnings that we are a society in danger of becoming ‘permanently divided’. We know there is an established link between poverty and declining mental health, not least because being poor often means you cannot access expedient and appropriate help. In order to combat poor mental health in young people, the government need to take [that] into account and attempt to reverse the impact that austerity has had on them.”
“In order to combat poor mental health in young people, the government need to take [that] into account and attempt to reverse the impact that austerity has had on them”
Perhaps one of the flaws around mental health campaigns are that they often point to the fact anyone can experience poor mental health, and therefore everyone should take it seriously. This is indeed true but risks oversimplifying the matter. Those facing financial pressures or who are in poverty are at greater risk of experiencing certain mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Furthermore, marginalised people are again at higher risk. Natasha affirms that mental health is impacted by so many factors in society, and people with different identities experience different risks.
“Race, gender and sexuality all have a huge impact on mental health. For example, black and ethnic minority young people are significantly more at risk of experiencing psychosis. Gay young people are four times more likely to develop depression. Almost half of transgender people have attempted suicide.
“I researched this over the course of a year and included a lot of my thoughts in my forthcoming book. However, to summarise, my theory is that BAME and LGBT+ young people are more likely not to have the key psychological need of ‘belonging’ fulfilled and to experience prejudice and bullying. If we made society more inclusive, mental illness in traditionally marginalised demographics would, I am certain, fall dramatically.
“It isn’t enough just to combat active racism or homophobia, we need to look at factors such as structural injustice and heteronormative assumption, which are just as dangerous. People say ‘there’s no prejudice anymore’ because things are theoretically better than they once were but that’s an incredibly dangerous stance – our work is very far from over if we want to make society fair.”
It’s a sentiment that gets to the heart of tackling mental health inequality – a broad approach is needed, with other issues in society being discussed. Just talking about mental health alone isn’t enough when poor mental health is often caused by different pressures which different people have to face. To give effective treatment, we then must address the root causes.
Conversations around mental health can be too simplistic, or tend to focus upon those who know they have a mental health issue and may be struggling. Mental health care then can risk being neglected, until there already is an issue to manage rather than taking early preventive care. Natasha emphasises that society needs a better understanding of mental health, including the acceptance that we all have a mental health and that it has to be looked after.
“I also believe we need to broaden our understanding of what mental health is. Because we can see our body, we acknowledge we all have a physical health and most of us unconsciously monitor and maintain it constantly. We teach children to eat their veg, get fresh air, do exercise, not because they are poorly but because it is beneficial for everyone. I’d like to see the mental health model look a bit more like that. We keep hearing that 1 in 3 people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime, but 3 in 3 people have a brain and therefore a mental health.
“If we taught ourselves to nurture and nourish our minds and understand our moods from an early age, not only would this help manage generally non-medical mental health issues, like stress, it would also help people at risk of mental illness ‘catch’ it quicker. All the evidence shows us that the earlier a mental illness is treated, the greater the chance of recovery. It’s win/win.”
Self-esteem is often at the core of mental wellbeing. Young people are surrounded by different factors that may cause issues with self-esteem, such as how social media can be used to mock people as much as to build them up. Natasha recommends different ways of promoting self-esteem.
“There are two ways I’d recommend to promote self-esteem. The first is to encourage critical thinking. I’d never ask a young person to do anything I wouldn’t do myself and I cannot imagine ceasing to engage with fashion, makeup, fitness or social media any time soon. However, if we’re going to survive an age in which incredibly creative and expensive imagery and messaging designed to destroy our self-esteem is coming at us from every angle, we need to get into a habit of constantly questioning and dismissing.
“we need to get into a habit of constantly questioning and dismissing”
“Regularly asking yourself questions such as ‘what am I getting out of this?’, ‘could I not do this and be okay with it?’, ‘is this helping me to be the type of person I want to be?’ and ‘what’s the agenda, here?’ is what allows us to navigate the digital and increasingly capitalist-consumerist era relatively unscathed.
“The other (and much harder) task is to change the environment young people grow up in. I used to think this was all-but impossible, but since social media has given people more power over what they engage with, we have seen (for example) beauty standards and role models change. This makes me hopeful that we can one day exist in a society where a diverse range of people are celebrated.”
Young people often face different pressures. These may come from family situations, home, struggling with coming out or even exams. Thousands of children have called Childline since 2015 over exam stress. The cuts to services then have a real impact and it can’t be left to teachers to pick up where there rest of society fails as they’re often overstretched and overworked as it is. There has to be investment in training and resources for that to be a viable option, but there has been no indication that is a situation likely to be delivered any time soon. The needs of young people are often complex, but it’s not clear yet whether our government – or even society – has any kind of idea or drive to tackle that.
Natasha is right; everyone has a mental health, but this is forgotten when it comes to children and young people. We should be doing better by the next generations. It’s time for more than talk. Children’s mental health deserves investment.
Natasha Devon MBE is an author and campaigner who visits an average of three schools, colleges and universities every week throughout the UK delivering talks and conducting research on mental health and related issues. Her book ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental’ is out on 31st May, published by Bluebird Books. You can keep up to date with her work by following her on Twitter and Instagram @_NatashaDevon
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