The Child Mental Health Crisis Debate: Part 3

July 18, 2016

Continued from yesterday

As discussed in the previous two posts, there is every reason to doubt the existence of a general “mental health crisis” in children in the UK. However, here I want to ask whether if we were to accept that there were such a crisis, would we accept the progressive take that it is caused by exams or traditional schooling?

The main prompt I had to return to the issue of whether there was a child mental health crisis was listening to this BBC Radio 4 programme about children’s mental health in Sweden. There is a debate there that reflects our own, although the programme suggests there is more evidence for increased mental health problems among the young in Sweden. As presented in the programme, when it comes to suggesting causes for an increase in problems there has been no push to blame exams or traditional education (perhaps because the declining Swedish education is one the world’s most progressive, although they do still do exams). Other explanations are mentioned. Social media is one possible cause, as is a culture of encouraging young people to worry about their mental health and consider upsets to be problems, which then appear in statistics based on self-reporting. One of the most interesting ideas is from psychiatrist, David Eberhard. I heard him speak at the Battle Of Ideas in 2014 and he describes children who are indulged and protected from all obstacles at a young age, only to be identified as having mental health problems when coping with the ordinary difficulties of adolescence. Whether or not his explanation is correct, the claim that Swedish children are happy when young and unhappy in adolescence adds a genuine complication for those who wish to make childhood happier and less troubled in the hope that it will improve mental health in general.

So as well as a lack of evidence there is a crisis in the UK, we can suggest alternative explanations for the causes of the alleged crisis, were it to exist. But let’s press on and look at the progressive case, that seeks to blame it on exams or traditional schooling. The version I’ve been seeing for years, has consisted largely of assertions that countries with a more high pressure education system, particularly Korea, have higher youth suicide rates. There’s not great data on this, but what there is suggests that this is a best a myth (and at worst a racist lie).

Other than this, the only other “evidence” for exam stress causing mental health problems can be found in this blogpost by Debra Kidd. She claims:

  • 29% of teenage suicides can be attributed to examination stress according to a report by The University of Manchester – the second biggest dominant cause. Again this must be reported with the caveat that there will have been other contributory causes.
  • In 2014 Childline reported that for the first time ever, school and exam stress came into the top ten causes of significant stress for children. Way below bullying and family issues, but still a cause. In the 16-18 age group, there was a 30% increase in the number of depressed teenagers citing school/exam stress as the main cause of their distress.

The first of these seems to be misinterpretation or repetition of inaccurate news reports.  The actual study of 145 suicides, found antecedents for 130 of them. 35 (27%) of those who committed suicide were found to have experienced “academic (especially exam) pressures”. Yet this hardly makes it the cause of those suicides, and according to this review there was widespread misreporting:

Coverage in the UK media was widespread. Different organisations chose to highlight different factors from the report, perhaps reflecting their own interests.

For example, The Sun reported that, “The Internet played a role in a quarter of recent teen suicides in England”, while the Daily Mail stated that, “Drugs linked to one in three teen suicides”. The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph highlighted exam stress.

Not all news stories were clear that these factors cannot be seen as direct causes of suicide.

For example, most teenagers have exam stress and develop acne, and many dabble in drugs and alcohol. But, thankfully, most teenagers don’t kill themselves.

Given how common academic pressures and exams are, 27% seems, if anything, low particularly when you consider how vague the phrase “academic pressures” is and the fact that the age group would have included university students.

As for Childline, they have a real knack for press releases that raise an issue. A search for “Childline report increase” and “Childline record levels of” and a year will find calls relating to how the following have increased at some point:

  • suicidal feelings;
  • cyberbullying;
  • self harm;
  • five year-olds;
  • attempting suicide;
  • child sex abuse;
  • sexual abuse by women;
  • anorexia;
  • mental health problems;
  • bullying;
  • eating disorders;
  • drink and drug abuse.

Also they have reported increases in:

  • Out of hours calls;
  • Calls made by boys;
  • Calls being answered;
  • Total calls.

A search for “Childline report decrease” found nothing relevant.

This does not mean Childline are making things up; this simply means they know how to get a headline out of any set of data. Every problem will have a dramatic rise at some point, particularly if you compare to a low point, and particularly if the number of calls being made and being answered are increasing. We should not, for one second, consider reforming the education system due to such reports. Nobody denies that children can be stressed about exams and we should seek to help those who are. But the idea that exams are a major cause of children’s mental health problems seems to be without good evidence.



  1. Childline probably are making things up :-) It is the usual game of scary headline (usually with no basis in reality when examined in context) in an attempt to increase funds for Childline. This is why child protection “charities” often claim things like “1 in 3 children abused” or something which is only achieved by defining abuse so widely that is surprising it’s not 1 in 1.

    Social Media does have an effect. It tends to create an echo chamber semi-automatically by linking together people who are ‘similar’ so it becomes a giant echo chamber. Actually talking to people about things, something that seems to be happening less and less, especially those who’ve been there, done it and lived through it, and have a more balanced view happens less.

    Exams are an issue, but the pressure seems slightly reduced if anything. Pressure to achieve numerical results at any costs was at its height in the Blair/Brown government – the drilling for tests at KS2 for a whole year seems to be less of an issue directly, KS3 has gone, and GCSE is still there.

    Though of course unlike the previous generation, there are more modular exams and easier retakes, and it’s much easier to get into A-levels and University than it was.

  2. This is worth reading as are all his books

    From a reviewer

    Szasz is not saying there is no such thing as human distress, he agress with that. It is just the labels and diagnoses that are attached to the person who exhibits a categorised “illness.” Mental illness cannot be found in the body as a disease or a genetic change, therefore he sets out to highlight how psychiatry invented the disorers.

    The basic belief being that psychological illnesses do not exist, as in a pathogene, or the body changing its infrastructure irrevocably. There is no bipolar, autism, schizo, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, anorexia gene.

    There is however a belief these genes exist and huge expenditure is placed upon finding them.

    All based on the perception that human beings are clockwork toys that lack certain chemicals just like a car or a robot. The views arrive from a sense of making the human being into a robot regardless of veracity.

    Szasz begins to talk apart the constructs within this book, piece by piece, and it makes very uncomfortable reading for any psych doctor, nurse etc.

    The first and fundamental error of psych science, it all rests upon belief, just the same as religion. It needs adherents and people to spread the message.

    Then it needs to take out dissenters. Into the silo huge industries arise based on keeping the real causes of misery a mystery – the social structures created to make sense of the world and negating the emotional world at the expense of abstracts.

    Szasz dons his armour, takes his sword and charges ahead into the mass ranks of the believers and they all melt into thin air, because their genetic beliefs are tissue paper.

    However this tissue paper is encoded in the belief systems of those who need to believe. It is this which keeps it all intact.

    An insightful book written to take apart the modern fallacies of psychiatric “science” which is anything but.


  3. Hi, why do you think the exam pressure has been reduced? Surely the change to Linear A levels this year has address stress? Nothing to base predicted grades. I have to say my l6th students are a lot more worried about getting the right grades as they have nothing to base their predicted grades on. uni are struggling to offer places at the moment.

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

  5. I know nothing of the research into the genetics and disposition towards a psychiatric illness. I do know that my father-in-law, husband and son have all been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (in its varying forms) over the past twenty years. It has killed one of them, caused the breakdown of a relationship and destroyed a promising career in physics research. I was of the ‘pull yourself together’ camp for a long time, believing that each of these men just needed to ‘grow a pair’ and face up to life and its myriad ups and downs.

  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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