The Child Mental Health Crisis Debate: Part 1

July 16, 2016

I’ve written a few blogs recently that touched on children’s mental health, and particularly claims of a crisis.

In The Trendiest Current Arguments For Progressive Education Part 1 I mentioned that children’s mental health is increasingly being used as a weapon in the debate about progressive and traditional education:

I have seen increasing attempts to blur the line between actual mental health issues, and any kind of emotional discomfort for children. I have seen bullying described as a mental health issue. I have seen people take the leap from concern about mental health, to the importance of “wellbeing” , or “resilience” as an aim of schooling and then to a downplaying of the academic purpose of schooling, or the need for knowledge. Most commonly though, I have seen “stress” and “anxiety” join “self-esteem” as an argument against various traditional practices, from strict discipline to setting exams. Indeed, the idea that children are traumatised by exams seems particularly popular at the moment, often tied to the bizarre claim that the amount of exams children sit is being increased by politicians.

In Lies, Damned Lies and Child Mental Health Statistics I observed that a number of interested parties (particularly the charity Young Minds and the now sacked “mental health champion” Natasha Devon) were claiming that children’s mental health problems had massively increased, by misusing and misinterpreting statistics.

In The mental health fad in schools I explained why, despite children’s mental health being a legitimate concern to have, the currently fashionable preoccupation with it should be scrutinised:

  1. Teachers are not therapists and not doctors. We can try to be supportive and we have an important duty to try to refer students to those who can help. But we are not qualified to treat mental health problems.
  2. Like SEN, mental health is full of folk tales and quack treatments. Anything done to support people with mental health problems, or to prevent mental health problems, should be based on the best evidence and judged by people with appropriate clinical qualifications. Even some of the treatments with the best average effects are ineffective or even harmful in some cases.
  3. The causes of mental health problems are complex. It is simply not good enough to assume that anything any child could worry about is a cause of mental health problems that has to be eliminated. The aim of removing worry from childhood, anxiety from adolescence or pressure from studying is not a realistic one.
  4. Charities working with young people should not be given a free pass. We know from Kids Company that it is perfectly possible for them to be wasting money on vanity projects. It is not impossible for them to be promoting nonsense or ripping off schools. They should be scrutinised, just as schools should.

Now a lot of the recent wave of concern seems to have been a result of the government’s ill-judged decision to give credibility to Natasha Devon a charity worker who has promoted crank therapies, abused people online and used mental health as an excuse to attack testing. But moving on from her, are there serious questions to answer? Could there be a children’s mental health crisis? If so, could it have something to do with our education system?

Much of the question of whether there is a crisis comes down to the analysis of statistics. Studies of the prevalence of mental health problems can only really measure a few things. Many are based on self-reporting, which is highly subjective and subject to fashion and tends to result in really large numbers of people being considered to be mentally ill. Statistics gathered this way have resulted in claims that 1 in 10 children and 1 in 4 adults have mental health problems in the past year, the majority of people have mental health problems in their lifetime and that 30% of children feel depressed all or most of the time. Some are based on clinical data which are shaped by people’s decision to seek help, which again is highly subjective and subject to fashion. Clinical data based on diagnoses might be more accurate that based only on numbers seeking help, but it will still be shaped by who actually seeks help, and in the long term by changing standards of diagnoses. On top of that there are huge debates over the nature of mental health problems, with both philosophical and clinical debates over what counts. It is the easiest thing in the world to cherry-pick statistics to show a crisis, and the hardest thing in the world to get reliable evidence that would actually answer the question of whether there is a crisis.

Continued tomorrow



  1. Another thought provoking post. Although I can’t comment on whether progressive education (whatever that really means) is contributing to increased mental health issues in children and young people, your post misses one of the main contributing factors to increased mental health issues in families, which is austerity.

    Below is a and extract and link to the Psychology against Austerity briefing papers which evidence why the current policies are leading to mental health issues. Where families are in poverty, they are at a higher risk of stress (this could increase risks of domestic abuse and addiction). Children in families where the toxic triangle of factors are present (poverty, domestic abuse and addiction), are more likely to suffer mental ill health.

    From the Psychology against Austerity blog

    “Our environments, economic, physical, and social, are central to our psychology, mental health and well-being. Austerity policies are damaging on multiple levels, to individuals, to communities and to society. Cuts have created conditions which increase both mental health problems and crime, setting up a potential catastrophe for future generations. Services have been reduced to crisis management, meaning people are being helped only once problems have become very severe, this ends up costing more in terms of suffering and money.

    We have identified five ‘Austerity Ailments’, experiences increased by cuts which lead to mental distress:

    Increasing Fear and Mistrust

    Increasing Humiliation and Shame

    Increasing Instability and Insecurity

    Increasing Isolation and Loneliness

    Increasing Experiences of Feeling Trapped and Powerless.”


    • What a pathetic whinge. We don’t have “austerity”. Not being able to upgrade your iPhone is not “austerity”. Not keeping the ludicrous growth in public sector spending is not austerity either.

      Argument = “Give me more money for my pet rent seeking otherwise you are hurting children”

  2. Hi, I enjoyed reading your blog post and while at agreed with some parts ( we are teachers not doctors) I do have a few concerns. You are implying that teachers are diagnosing students, I don’t have experience if this. What I do have experience is that doctors diagnose them but then there is a 6 week waiting for CAMH to decided the treatment, so teachers are left with a child to support but not really knowing how to support them. After the 6 weeks waiting p ( again from my experience ) they are told that they aren’t ill enough ( or thin enough ) as CAMH threshold now is so high. I was told by one member of CAMH staff, that unless the child was likely to cause life threatening harm to themselves they would probably not get any help.
    Which goes back to my point. I agree the experts should be dealing with the issue and teachers should be teacher but unfortunately we can’t.

    • This waiting time is caused by this idiocy, classifying anything other than lounging on a bed of flowers as “mental health problems”. Thus proper mental health practitioners (i.e. not teachers) get flooded with idiotic referrals and people who actually need it have to wait for ages behind people who are a bit worried about their GCSEs.

      The same thing happens in Social Services where reporting every single complaint of any sort however trivial floods the system.

      • I only know doctors or nurses who make referrals to CAMH. are you calling them the idiots? It’s my understanding they are the only ones who can refer not the child, teacher, or parent. Perhaps I am wrong

        • No it’s the front entry that’s the problem, not the actual process itself. It’s like A+E being flooded with people who have a small cut on their finger.

          • Ok – so how do we help the children who can’t cope when it’s not a bed a roses. Surely they need coping strategies? Realistic methods . Not just someone telling them to deal with it – or get on with it. Again I don’t think this is teachers job yet at the moment it is.

  3. […] Teaching in British schools « The Child Mental Health Crisis Debate: Part 1 […]

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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