Child mental health crisis: Are we ‘medicalising’ children?

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A recent article by The Guardian has revealed a crisis in Children’s mental health and a feared “medicalisation of childhood”.

Natasha Devon has been liaising with schools to deliver mental health and well-being classes and she has declared that an average of three children in a class were diagnosed with mental illness.

Devon is the founder of Self Esteem Team and was appointed by the Government to not only look into children’s mental health but to investigate their school support systems.

“The question we should be asking ourselves is what are the emotional and mental health needs of all children and are they being met in our schools?” she said.

She is due to report her findings later on this year, one of them being the academic pressures children are facing.

Whilst at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference on Thursday she stated, “Time and time again over recent years young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health”.

“At one end of the scale we’ve got four-year-olds being tested, at the other end of the scale we’ve got teenagers leaving school and facing the prospect of leaving university with record amounts of debt. Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”

Points raised include:

  • Although drinking, smoking, drug taking and teenage pregnancy were down among young people, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70% in a generation
  • Admissions to hospital as a result of self-harm have doubled in four years.
  • Calls to the counselling service ChildLine about exam stress have tripled.

Devon stresses the importance of finding the cause of Depression and Anxiety in young people otherwise there is a risk of “Medicalising Childhood”. She also mentions the rising use of social media has made it incredibly hard to be a young person in today’s society.

“If a child is being bullied and they have symptoms of depression because they are being bullied, what they need is for the bullying to stop. They need to feel safe again. They don’t necessarily need anti-depressants or therapy.”

Caroline Meyer, an expert on eating disorders at the University of Warwick, also attended the conference and said recent research showed that girls were at 30% risk of an eating disorder, while the figure for boys was 14%.

Caroline identified some of the potential causes as low self-esteem and high levels of perfectionism adding: “It’s fine for children to have high standards for themselves. It’s what they do when they don’t meet them that’s the critical thing”.

“The number of new students that come to university having always got As and A*s, the first time they get a 2.2 in a piece of coursework, they fall apart. It’s about enabling them to have the resources they need to deal with that lack of success.”


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