Young people have to be taught that dealing with despair and disappointment is part of being human. By predicting that every setback will cause long-term damage, we are likely to cause psychological problems, not solve them.
Another day in lockdown brings another story about its devastating impact on children. This time Rod Grant, headmaster of Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh, claims that children are scared to go on playdates for fear that “someone will die as a result.”
Grant is right to draw attention to the corrosive impact of the media’s scaremongering on children’s lives. But is it really the case that, as the Royal College of Psychiatrists argues that school closures and the lockdown threaten to unleash a mental health crisis, young children could be damaged for life?
I pose this question because after studying childhood for over a quarter of century, I have become overwhelmed by the ceaseless publication of alarmist reports about the distressing state of children and young people’s mental health.
Even before lockdown, report after report warned that the “problem is greater than we thought and is likely to get worse.” So, in 2019, a year before the pandemic, a survey of teachers concluded that the mental health of pupils is ‘at crisis point’. More than 80 per cent of the teachers claimed that mental health among pupils in England had deteriorated during the previous two years.
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I could dig out dozens of reports written since the turn of the century which claim that children face an unprecedented mental health crisis and the situation is likely to get worse. Regardless of whether or not there is a lockdown, a mental health crisis among children has become the new normal.
I have no doubt that the lockdown, specifically the closure of school, has indeed had a terrible impact on children’s lives. However, I suggest that scare stories about a mental health crisis make the situation worse.
The tendency to interpret children’s life through the narrative of mental health is no doubt well intended, but it is likely to make the situation far worse. Until recently, many of the painful experiences of children – rejection, failure, disappointment – were portrayed as problems of existence rather than as markers for a psychological illness.
Since the 1980s, there has been a growing tendency to medicalise children’s normal emotional upheavals. Contemporary Anglo-American culture trains its young people to regard the challenges integral to growing up as a source of psychological distress.
The medicalisation of childhood and parental fears about their mental health unwittingly influences their children’s behaviour. Fear of fragile identities, fear of failure, fear of low self-esteem, fear of falling standards, fear of the pernicious effects of exams on students’ mental health, fears about competition and competitive sports and fear about discipline are recurring themes in debates on education. Often these fears are ratcheted up and anxieties about the fragile child acquire a life of their own.
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Take the trend towards depicting the transition from primary to secondary school as a frightening episode. Not so long ago, it was assumed that children impatiently looked forward to going to the ‘big school.’ That was then. Today, according to one account [The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes], “researchers, teachers and policy makers regard the transition from primary to secondary schools as so “unsettling, daunting, stressful” that it can de-motivate up to 40 per cent of 11-year-olds badly enough “never” to recover, thereby causing a marked dip in formal achievement.”
This catastrophic representation of an experience that was previously regarded as unproblematic is ceaselessly communicated through a language that emphasises the unbearable psychological burdens borne by children. The primary-secondary school transition is sometimes expressed through the processes associated with loss, mourning and grief. Some experts advise secondary schools to provide pupils with the means to experience ‘closure.’
Is it any surprise that experts are now warning that children will need mental health support when schools re-open? They claim that children may well be traumatised by the experience of returning to school.
Until now, stories about ‘youngsters pushed over the edge by lockdown trauma’ dominated the headlines. Are we now going to complicate children’s lives by training them to expect to be traumatised by their return to school?
Given the influence of language, it is likely that children internalise the narrative of mental health. Youngsters who are socialised to become emotionally fragile children are likely to adopt the role assigned to them. At the very least, the stories that children hear about the damaging impact of the lockdown may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We can do young people a big favour by de-medicalising their life. Instead of treating them as potential patients, we need to cultivate their capacity for independence and resilience, and teach them that distress and disappointment is not a psychological problem, but the condition of life.
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