After the recent report by The Children’s Society that a quarter of 14-year-old girls have self-harmed, many campaigners have called for the root causes of the adolescent mental health crisis to be tackled – rather than just firefighting the symptoms.
Resilience lessons, peer mentoring, awareness campaigns and provision of early intervention may be valuable initiatives. But they do little to challenge the main causes of mental health issues – which are likely to be integral characteristics of a neoliberal economy, including austerity, global uncertainty and a highly pressured education system.
The British Psychological Society’s recently published Power Threat Meaning Framework also supports this viewpoint. It sees mental distress less as an individual medical issue, and more as an intelligible response to the social, material and cultural pressures acting on people.
Much of my experience is as a storyteller and community artist, and I coordinate the Things As They Are network for young artists with experience of mental ill health. I have found that young people with mental health conditions often have a keen perception of how the media, economy and society contribute to their problems. These large-scale issues are often beyond the scope of schools to address, but with a change of focus, the educational environment could move beyond firefighting problems to play a more fundamental role.
More time for play
A vital first step would be measures to reverse the shrinkage of what might be called the “youth public sphere”. By this I mean the space and time that is allowed for dialogue, self-expression, playfulness, exploration, development of personal initiative, and just plain chatting, between young people and caring adults.
These opportunities enable young people to understand the world around them and thrive despite adversity. But they have been dangerously eroded by closely specified curricula, performance-focused education systems and the decimation of the youth service.
– Catherine Heinemeyer
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