Driving kids crazy: Part 3, gender

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In Part II of this three-parter on the mental health of young people, the focus was on that part of the lives of children and adolescents in which adults are not present, a realm where there is the possibility of developing self-reliance and confidence in peer groups. It was concluded there is a strong case for saying their independent culture has been disastrously undermined.

It would be simplistic to suppose, though, that the present crisis of mental health begins and ends with this dimension of concern. As well as culture there is gender, for instance. In our present era of relative equality of the sexes compared to the patriarchal past that dominates the historical record, and the gender fluidity that is becoming increasingly fashionable, we tend to downplay innate psychological differences between the sexes to an extent that appears to be exacting a severe mental health toll.

One of the key lessons I took from the Institute of Ideas (IOI) forum discussed in Part I is that boys’ needs and problems remain very different to those of girls. Evidence consistent with this view is to be seen in the epidemiological data, which show that far more boys need mental health treatment than girls in the pre-teen years but the pattern is reversed in adolescence and early adulthood, with females suffering from a rapidly rising epidemic of anxiety, depression and self-harm that has not been experienced by males. Anxiety and depression in teenage boys have actually fallen in the last decade.

Let’s start with pre-teen children. Their basic needs, in addition to being part of a loving and secure family, are for the most part relatively straightforward and apply to both sexes. The Mental Health Foundation lists them, including

  • being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise
  • having time and the freedom to play, indoors and outdoors

I single out these two bullet-pointed factors because they both include elements – vigorous exercise and outdoor play, especially free-range exploration – that we have reason to believe boys need to an even greater extent than girls. Boys in general (though “tomboys” are a fairly common exception), tend to be a lot more energetic and adventurous. It is no accident that in the cooped up conditions now prevailing, it is boys, far more than girls, who are diagnosed with ADHD.

Boys may also be suffering more pre-teen mental problems than girls because the things they are good at – fighting, making a lot of noise, disappearing for hours on end and coming home with grazed knees, muddy clothes and a dead frog in their pocket (or worse, a live one!) – tend to be systematically not just forbidden but far more disapproved of than used to be the case. Parents have always punished boys for their wilder transgressions but usually in an indulgent, admiring way: boys will be boys, they would say. Now, though, in a world with less use for muscle-power and manliness, and with fathers encouraged to discover their “feminine side”, the pre-teen boy has no clear masculine role model to follow. Cross-gender boys might feel liberated, but most will not.

This diminished use for muscle-power, and lower levels of physical activity, are reflected in an actual loss of muscle-power among children. A survey published in the child health journal Acta Paediatrica on 10-year-olds in England showed they are weaker now. The number of sit-ups they can do declined by 27.1% between 1998 and 2008, arm strength fell by 26% and grip strength by 7% and twice as many children (one in 10) could not hold their own weight when hanging from wall bars. That is a staggering difference over a relatively short period and one likely to have a differentially greater psychological impact on boys, who have traditionally been more invested than girls in seeing their growing physical strength as a source of pride.

Even more striking is the literal disappearance of boys’ “manhood” as they put of weight through lack of exercise. Parents have increasingly been turning up with their prepubescent male children at doctors’ surgeries anxious about the boy’s penis size and asking for a physical examination. Writing in the New York Times recently, family doctor Perri Klass said what he and his colleagues have found is that increasing levels of obesity have meant boys are losing their dicks – or losing sight of them at least – as they disappear beneath layers of fat. It’s not that the todgers are tinier now, just that the boys are bigger. It’s a worry that will often resolve itself once they hit puberty and the penis grows rapidly, but only if they can get their weight under control, and that is often not the case.

But, hey, never mind, fat boys and indeed pretty well all adolescent males have a great source of consolation these days, especially if they can get online: pornography. A recent report for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner by Miranda Horvath et al. was titled Basically… porn is everywhere, which says it all. Overwhelmingly, these days, boys have seen pornography by the time they reach adolescence and often well before, although the official euphemism that they have been “exposed” to porn disguises the fact that most adolescent boys need no encouragement to go looking for it.

As the report coyly puts it, “Boys and young men generally view pornography more positively”, while “girls and young women generally report that it is unwelcome and socially distasteful”.

Disapprovingly, the report continues, “pornography has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex; maladaptive attitudes about relationships; more sexually permissive attitudes; greater acceptance of casual sex; beliefs that women are sex objects; …and less progressive gender role attitudes (e.g. male dominance and female submission).”

In these remarks we find an important clue as to why boys tend to feel better about their adolescence and early adulthood than girls these days, and why girls are experiencing much greater mental health problems. In traditional cultures where the virginity of young women is tightly guarded, boys in their bachelor youth have to put up with a lot of sexual frustration,  albeit ameliorated through homosexual encounters with their peers or with men. Today, all underage sexual relationships have become dangerous, with negative implications for healthy sexual development within actual, fully human, person-to-person relationships.

The world of person-to-object pornography thrives, though, with boys and young men loving it. For an underage boy real girls are usually hard to get, but virtual ones are everywhere and a source of easy and immediate satisfaction. As for young men, they can find sex if they are presentable, and can even successfully demand that girlfriends do all sorts of “advanced” stuff they have seen in the porn movies, such as shaving their genitals and submitting to anal sex – or even acts where misogyny seems a likely factor, such as being urinated or spat upon. If women refuse to put up with it, no problem: males may opt to take the porn in preference: Generation Masturbation rules, OK! Not only that: young women are also under pressure to have a perfect figure and complexion, just like the porn stars, in an era when so many women fail to shape up on account of poor diet, leading to obesity. It should hardly be surprising they feel bad about themselves and self-harm more.

We know the standard feminist response to all this. Most feminists hate porn. Fat feminists even celebrate their own corpulence and insist it is the men who must shape up, not by getting thinner but by not “raping” women – an insistence which tends to mean making the rules of consensual sex ever tighter, so that everything except sex between fat man-hating lesbians is ruled off limits.

Rosamund Urwin, of the Evening Standard, had a telling anecdote along these lines when she was speaking at the IOI forum. She had heard from one poor young guy who was trying to keep up with these ever more impossible standards. He thought he had better be verbally explicit on a date, asking the woman outright if she would consent to sexual activity, so there would be no misunderstanding. Instead of being pleased by his gentlemanly determination to go through the officially correct procedure, the question “weirded her out” and she asked him to leave!

Camile Paglia, speaking in the same session, was robust against such nonsense and against the kind of so-called feminism that encourages women to see themselves as weak and vulnerable: women who cower in “safe spaces” and refuse to takes responsibility for their own behaviour (getting drunk, for instance, and then blaming men for “raping” them) do nothing for the equality of the sexes. As for porn, she is all in favour, not least because its wildness forces us to confront our repressed sexuality and the price we pay for denying it. “Toughen up!” is her message to the delicate ladies, or even “Man up!” Hearing her, in effect, urge women to be more like men as a solution to their mental health crisis came as a refreshing change to the more familiar feminist idea that men should be more like women.

Not that it strikes me as a great solution. Absolutely we need toughness in some respects, in defence of free speech, for instance, against the Snowflakes who can’t stand to be offended by unwelcome opinions. But we also need empathy, and social relationships that are not merely exploitative and objectifying – as in the worst kind of porn, which one suspects is a projection of the violent domestic abuser’s mindset – or overly competitive and individualistic.

The environmentalist George Monbiot has captured the personal appearance question from a slightly different angle:

Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has brilliantly documented, girls and young women routinely alter the photos they post to make themselves look smoother and slimmer. Some phones, using their “beauty” settings, do it for you without asking; now you can become your own thinspiration. Welcome to the post-Hobbesian dystopia: a war of everyone against themselves. Is it any wonder, in these lonely inner worlds, in which touching has been replaced by retouching, that young women are drowning in mental distress?

Touching replaced by retouching. This is very telling. Monbiot is talking not about sex here but about human connection, our vital need to keep literally in touch with each other. Last time, in a comment responding to Part II, Christian briefly alluded to the work of Tiffany Field, which is well worth elaborating on here, because her research gives strong support to a link made by psychologists between high levels of crime and societies where touching is frowned upon. It is thought, in particular, that parents who starve their children of physical affection are damaging them physically and emotionally.

Physically touching children is especially frowned upon in the US but is much more acceptable in France. So Dr Field and her team had the bright idea of comparing physical interaction between parents and children sitting in restaurants in France and America. The French, who have a strong culture of openly displaying physical affection, were found to touch their children 110 times in only half an hour. Whereas in America, which has a higher rate of abuse and adult violence, the parents only made contact with their children twice in 30 minutes. The researchers also watched children and parents together in playgrounds and found that youngsters who were not touched very often were far more violent and aggressive towards other children. Field said that people who are starved of cuddling when they are young are also more likely to grow up with depression and anxiety because they feel unloved.

I doubt anyone here will be surprised by these findings. They are not the whole story, of course. This blog series has looked at a range of factors contributing to the mental well being of the young and commentators here have identified others. I have focused mainly (in Part II) on the significance of children’s own independent culture and self reliance and (in Part III) on gender as a complicating factor. These musings barely scratch the surface but I hope nevertheless they will be found thought–provoking.

WHAT A LOAD OF FOOTBALLS

I’m not sure darts champion Eric Bristow was entirely on target when he tweeted “Might be a looney but if some football coach was touching me when i was a kid as i got older i would have went back and sorted that poof out”; but, like the little missiles he chucks for a living, he did have a point.

The lachrymose old leather bashers who nearly set the studio furniture afloat on a sea of tears in the course of Victoria Derbyshire’s daytime TV show may well have had something genuine to cry about and it is right that they are heard out.

But Bristow will be speaking for many in also tweeting that these guys are “wimps” and not “proper men”. It’s not so much that being openly emotional is necessarily a bad thing in a man, or that paedos deserve a kicking – a view one of the alleged victims rightly dismissed as evidence of a “stone age mentality”.

It’s more a feeling that whatever “abuse” (if any) these guys suffered could have been done and dusted long ago without the never-ending soap opera of trauma and tragedy now being played out as part of the travelling circus of historic abuse narratives that began with the Catholic Church and his since moved from one institutional setting to another.

It’s a feeling that this whole show is being kept on the road by vested interests in the therapy industry, the media and politics, and that what these particular victims are victims of is not, fundamentally, sexual abuse, but their career disappointments. They were hugely ambitious guys in a fiercely competitive business. They were not quite good enough, which is no disgrace; but now it seems they want to blame their bitter disappointment on someone else, and that is another matter entirely..

I see that Barry Bennell, the coach accused on the Victoria Derbyshire show and elsewhere in the media, has already served a long time in prison, apparently tried to take his own life recently and now faces further charges. I make no comment whatever on the legal merit or otherwise of these latest charges. I do not know who is making the complaint(s) or on what basis and it would be wrong to say anything that could prejudice the case either way – not that this blog is likely to have any influence.

What I will say, though, is that Bennell is the one I feel sorry for: a brilliant, inspirational coach, as all concerned admit, whose life has been destroyed far beyond any suffering of the supposed “abuse” victims, or so it seems to me. There were those among them who appeared content to be “raped”, in at least one case for years on end, as long as they stood a chance of getting to the top in football.

No, sorry, Bennell’s is the real tragedy.

Or one of them. In all the fuss over the snowballing football coach saga the loss of photographer David Hamilton, found dead in a suspected suicide by asphyxiation at his Paris home at the age of 83, has gone almost unnoticed in the UK.

Known for his work in fashion magazines as well as, more controversially, his top-selling books featuring nude photographs of underage girls, his death follows historic allegations of rape and sexual assault against a number of schoolgirls in France. French radio presenter Flavie Flament, 42, in particular, claimed she was raped by Hamilton when she just 13 in 1987. She and three other women were attempting to launch a prosecution against him. He denied all the allegations.

Unlike Bennell, at least Hamilton made it to a grand old age before coming unstuck, an element of relative good fortune we may be seeing less in France and elsewhere in future as the mania of the Anglophone countries spreads.

Driving kids crazy: Part 2, culture

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What could possibly count as insanity in a world that votes to make a narcissistic sociopath its most powerful person? Admittedly, we didn’t all have the right to vote, but over two hundred million did. We are told many of those millions are mad as hell, but are they just mad? Are their delusions so profound they should be considered clinically psychotic?

I wrote last time that we have moved on since the anti-psychiatry movement of half a century ago. But “Explorer” put me right by commenting that it is actually still alive and well, as evidenced by the website Mad In America, where I discovered an article titled “In a Post-Trump Election World: What is Insanity?” by clinical psychologist Noel Hunter. She has posed some fundamental questions not a million miles from my own.

Moving on, this second blog on mental health will consider important new information that has come my way since last time from three sources: (a) a recent book on the damaging imposition of adult culture on children; (b) a study on the vital but incomplete role played by children’s own culture; and (c) an amazing new study on the mental health benefits associated with a well known but underappreciated hybrid model.

The book is Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter, which was discussed extensively at the Institute of Ideas forum I mentioned last time and has been reviewed by Shaoni Bhattacharya in the New Scientist. The basic idea is that parents should be like gardeners, tending young shoots and providing fertile ground but then pretty much leaving the seed of their loins to grow naturally. Instead, many parents resemble carpenters, as Bhattacharya puts it, “chiselling away” at their offspring “to create an image of success that has little to do with their kids’ wishes, talents or needs. They wilt under oppressive over-direction.”

Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and philosopher, says that “parenting”, with its aim of manufacturing a preconceived end product, is a relatively recent and terrible invention. It has become a “management plan”, stuffed with endless schedules, heavy expectations and endless surveillance: some “helicopter parents” supervise their progeny’s essay assignments and cannot lay off even when their “children” become young working adults.

Gardening, by contrast, lets kids raise themselves to a considerable extent, so that they grow up robust, resilient and adaptable in a fast-changing world.

It starts with play. Play is fundamental to learning. Packing their schedules with “enriching” activities robs them of opportunities for mental development that is genuinely their own. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a similar insight over two centuries ago in his Emile (especially Book II), but this is now backed up with modern psychological research. When children are chained to desks, forced to focus on a life radically different from our evolutionary past, mental health problems are to be expected. As Gopnic writes, there’s “a close connection between the rise of schools and the development of attention deficit disorder”. In the US, Gopnik tells us, 1 in 5 boys have an ADD label by 17. This is a deep systemic problem that has been with us since Rousseau’s day: he knew that over-tutored kids do not thrive. But intensive modern parenting is making things much worse, like the flooding that occurs when rain keeps falling relentlessly on already water-logged land.

I guess heretics here will already be leaping to tell me that ADD, or ADHD, as it is now psychiatrically designated, is massively over-diagnosed in the US, much to the benefit of pharmaceutical corporations but not children. Gopnik could not agree more. She says, “Instead of drugging children’s brains to get them to fit our schools, we could change our schools to accommodate a wider range of children’s brains.”

Psychologist Peter Gray has studied the decline of play in recent times and its implications for psychopathology. He is adamant that for the US at least, record levels of anxiety, depression, suicide, and feelings of powerlessness are now well documented among adolescents and young adults, and that lack of play from childhood onwards is implicated. I highly commend his TEDx talk on this.

In an article titled “The Culture of Childhood: We’ve Almost Destroyed It”, in Psychology Today, he tells us that wherever anthropologists have observed traditional cultures and paid attention to children as well as adults, they’ve observed two cultures, the adults’ and the children’s. The two cultures are not completely independent and separate, and much of what children do in their own world is an attempted imitation of the grown-up one. Crucially, though, in their own cultural space they are free to do things in their own way, practising and learning by interaction with their peers. Gray writes:

Little children communicate with one another largely in the context of play, and the communications have real meaning. They negotiate about what and how to play. They discuss the rules. They negotiate in ways very similar to the ways adults negotiate with one another. This is far better practice for future adult-adult communication than the kinds of “conversations” that children typically have with adults.

This isn’t just theory, nor is it confined to the culture of much freer kids in hunter-gatherer tribes. Anyone who has seen Channel 4 TV’s The Secret Life of 4-Year-Olds (a new series is currently under way) can see it happening in front of their very eyes, recorded by hidden cameras – as in the best wild-life documentaries!

We know that in traditional societies youngsters are often required to take on adult responsibilities at a much earlier age than in our own, but even among hunter-gatherers, Gray says, play extends into the teens. As for our own culture:

As children get older, and especially once they are in their teen years, their communications with one another have ever more to do with the emotions and struggles they experience.  They can be honest with their friends, because their friends are not going to overreact and try to assume control, the way that their parents or other adults might.  They want to talk about the issues important in their life, but they don’t want someone to use those issues as another excuse to subordinate them.  They can, with good reason, trust their friends in ways that they cannot trust their parents or teachers.

Well then, having thus seen off overbearing parents and oppressive schooling, both of which leave too little room for children’s independent development and lead to mental health problems, what is to be done? Something less adult-driven, plainly, something less regimented.

So you might think the very last place to look for inspiration would be an organisation that began not merely with regimentation but with actual military assignments undertaken by boys in the course of the famous Siege of Mafeking in 1899-1900. I mean the scout movement. Robert Baden-Powell, a general in the British Army, had the bright idea of forming the Mafeking Cadet Corps. This was a group of youths who supported the troops by look-out tasks and carrying messages, including under enemy fire, which freed the men for military duties and kept the boys occupied during the long siege. The Cadet Corps performed well, helping in the defence of the town – led by 13-year-old Sergeant-Major Warner Goodyear. This early success gave Baden-Powell the kernel of an idea that he would develop into scouting over the following few years.

But don’t worry about indoctrinating kids with military values. The key thing about Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts, as they were later to become, was a focus on self-reliance and kids patrolling independently of adults in small teams of their peers. It came to be genuinely about scouting skills – scouting out the land as backwoodsmen and explorers must do for survival in the wild. I have referred to it above as a hybrid model, because it combines adult values and background guidance with active children’s culture.

Now, get this. It was sensationally reported in New Scientist last week that Scouts and Guides grow up to have better mental health at age 50. Not just a bit better, a lot better. A study by Chris Dibben and his colleagues at Edinburgh University analysed data from a long-running survey of almost 10,000 people across the UK who were born in November 1958. They found that 28% of the study’s participants had been involved in the Scouts or Guides, and that these were a whopping 15% less likely to suffer from anxiety or mood disorders at the age of 50 than their peers who didn’t join.

The team found no association between better mental health and participating in church groups or other voluntary groups. Scouts or Guides were not more likely to come from families of any particular social status. Noting, however, that people from poorer backgrounds do have a relatively higher likelihood of mental illness, the report said this effect seemed to be reduced or even removed in those who attended Scouts or Guides.

During the 1970s, the period to which this scouting background relates, both the Scouts and Guides were still focusing on self-education in the context of small peer groups. There was adult assistance,  but not direction. Outdoor environments and physical activity were a major feature, both of which are now known to be good for mental health. Dibben et al.’s detailed report in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (free download: DOI: 10.1136/jech-2016-207898) speculates that “It may be that this early exposure to the skills needed to work with a small group enables adults to more effectively develop later life social networks”. This would explain why the mental health benefits of scouting extend at least into middle age and could well be lifelong.

Sure, there is a downside. There always is, with everything. The Boys Scouts of America, for instance, has long been a bastion of institutionalised homophobia. And my own older brother quit the scouts in England at about age 12 when he became an atheist and baulked at compulsory church attendance on Sunday. I don’t suppose they still insist on church, or even belief in God, which has traditionally been part of the Scout Promise (in Britain: “I will do my duty to God and the Queen.”) But some heretics here may not like the style of an organisation which features a top-down leadership structure and explicit prescribed values as set out in the Scout Law. This once included (and for some scouting organisations still does) Baden-Powell’s insistence that “a scout is clean in thought, word and deed”. Decent Scouts, he said, “look down upon silly youths who talk dirt, and they do not let themselves give way to temptation, either to talk it or to do anything dirty. A Scout is pure, and clean-minded, and manly.”

Nevertheless, boys will be boys. Not for nothing was there a saying in less PC times than ours: “He couldn’t organise a circle-jerk in a boy scout camp!” This was an expression of contempt for anyone’s incompetence, of course, not a reference to old B-P himself. It was also testimony to the capacity of boys to organise their own “social life” without adult help. As for B-P’s sexuality, he seems to have been too repressed and moralistic for circle-jerks. However, according to his biographer Tim Jeal he had a great fondness for seeing naked boys bathing and also delighted in “artistic” nude photography of boys that would get him into trouble these days.

So do kids need grown-ups as part of their culture at all? Elijah D. Manley ought to know a thing or two about this. He recently distinguished himself by becoming the first ever minor to run for President of the United States in the recent election, at the age of 17, gaining significant support as a candidate in the Green Party primaries. In an online interview last week he used a striking phrase in a plea for adults to back off from attempting to bring about what he called the “gentrification of youth” by means of attacking or trying to influence youth culture.

It is a line that echoes what we have seen above: kids need their own space, from infancy to adolescence. That is right. But I would ask heretics here to ponder why they need it. Peter Gray’s anthropological studies demonstrated that they need it not because youth have no need of adult wisdom. Nothing could be less true. The young are learning. They need space to practise without being judged. But quite soon they will be judged, in the workplace and elsewhere. They need a permeable arrangement, in which adult values are made known to them, and grown-ups are readily accessible, but which they can experience and talk about independently, experimentally, with freedom to take risks and make mistakes.

The mistakes alone will disabuse them of the idea that their own judgement is always brilliant. Sometimes it will be. In some respects, as with adopting new technology, they will often be quicker and smarter than their parents and teachers. But often not. There will be times when they will feel a need to seek the voice of experience – and, yes, the emotional help that can come from a quiet supportive word and an arm around the shoulder. The trick is just to be available, not overbearing. And the adults in this role will do well not to suck up to the kids by overindulging their delusions of maturity. The young need rights, for sure, including legally enforceable ones, but not the patronising pretence that they are grown-up when they are not.

That is why, I suggest, the scouting model works so well for the mental health of the young: it works with the grain of our psychological development, not against it.

Headlined as Part 2 of a sequence on youth mental health, the above piece has not been quite as advertised at the end of Part 1. As already indicated, this was because important new information came my way. However, the theme I originally hoped to consider in Part 2 remains important so I have decided to extend the sequence to Part 3. The UK data examined in Part 1 gave rise to a puzzle: Why is it that boys have more mental health problems in the pre-teen years but girls have it tougher as teenagers and young adults? I will have a crack at solving this puzzle in Part 3.

POST-SAVILE PROBES GO INTO MELTDOWN

The UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is now visibly in total meltdown after the BBC’s Newsnight revealed last night that another senior lawyer has quit, with others poised to leave. Aileen McColgan, a law professor at Kings College London was the lead lawyer in the inquiry’s investigation into child abuse in the Anglican and Catholic Church and is the seventh lawyer to leave, according to today’s Daily Mail. She is said to have no confidence in the fourth chair of the inquiry, Alexis Jay, after the first three chairs were also found wanting. Even now, in the news bulletins today, prime minister Theresa May was still insisting she had “absolute confidence” in the inquiry. But it has plainly failed. It is dead. It is an ex-inquiry, as devoid of life as Monty Python’s dead parrot. The longer this is denied, the more ridiculous the government will look.

The news from IICSA comes not long after the Henriques report, trailed on Heretic TOC last month. Although the full report by retired senior judge Sir Richard Henriques was not published, the conclusions were utterly damning, with the Metropolitan Police blasted for “grave errors of judgement”, especially being too ready to believe dodgy informants in its Operation Midland inquiry into alleged VIP paedophilia. IICSA and Operation Midland have been among the numerous hysteric, sorry historic, child abuse probes set up in the wake of the Jimmy Savile “scandal”. One of Henriques’ most serious findings was that police misled a District Judge when officers applied for search warrants for the homes of the key suspects. As for the complainant known only as “Nick”, whose mad fantasies  gave rise to sensational allegations against top politicians and other VIPs, the good news is that he is now under investigation for perverting the course of justice.

Are we (or they) driving kids crazy?

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A barrage of reports lately provides powerful evidence that young people, including teenagers and children, are suffering an epidemic of mental illness.

A large-scale study of 30,000 pupils by the Department for Education for England, with thousands of teenagers aged 14 and 15 interviewed in-depth, showed a 10% rise in poor mental health over the last decade; depression or anxiety afflicted one in three teenage girls. The number of under-16s being admitted to hospital for self-harm shot up by an astonishing 52%. A recent survey in England found that one in four women between 16 and 24 had self-harmed, and one in eight now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder were found to affect 26% of women in this age group.

The focus of media attention has been on teenage girls, especially as regards pressures attributed to problems of self-esteem. But in the pre-teen years more than twice as many boys as girls under 11 were in contact with NHS mental health services in England at the end of June 2016, according to a survey of NHS trusts.

So what is going on? As heretics, we are not short of ideas as to why children and teenagers are less happy and thriving than they might be, but we also need our intuitions to be as well informed as possible. With that in mind I took myself off to London for a discussion forum at the Barbican Centre called “Young people and mental illness: a growing problem?”, part of a two-day Battle of Ideas debating event last month run by the Institute of Ideas.

The question mark in the title hints at scepticism – no surprise, really, as the forum was initiated by Social Policy Forum, whose About page says “social policy…is rarely discussed in its own terms. This is a problem because instead of policy makers trying to find ways to better meet people’s needs, they are more likely to be found promoting behavioural change or advocating intrusive interventions into people’s lives.” Ah, yes, intrusive interventions! Some of us here know a thing or two about those and have good reasons to suspect the hyped-up horror stories, moral panics and hidden agendas used to justify them.

In line with this insight, the event description said “Influential voices claim that children today face more pressures from social media than previous generations, adding up to a ‘toxic’ childhood. Critics are wary of drawing more children into a therapeutic relationship with the caring professions, arguing that this would undermine rather than foster resilience.”

Part of this scepticism expresses itself through a disinclination to accept that there really is a mental health crisis among the young. I heard it pointed out, for instance, that school bullying, often cited as a cause of anxiety, depression and suicidal feelings, is nothing new and is an inevitable part of growing up. Kids just have to learn to live with it, the non-interventionists say: it’s part of their social education, it’ll toughen them up and stand them in good stead for the slings and arrows of life’s later fortunes. What we have these days, it is suggested, is the Snowflake Generation: over-protected kids who turn up at university demanding Safe Places where they won’t have to face intellectual “bullies” who will make them feel “uncomfortable” by challenging the politically correct dogmas they have been spoon-fed for as long as they can remember.

Those of us who value free speech will of course warm to its robust defence. We will thus welcome an important distinction implicitly made above between being made merely uncomfortable or anxious on the one hand, and bullying that entails actual or seriously threatened physical violence on the other. They are connected phenomena but radically different in degree. Likewise, there is a big difference in mental health terms between clinically diagnosed conditions such a schizophrenia and severe autism, at the genuinely serious end of the scale, and milder conditions at the other, especially when they are self-diagnosed or only discovered as answers solicited in unscientific surveys of the cheap and cheerful (or gloomy!) sort. Lots of people these days, for instance, claim to be autistic because, unlike some forms of mental illness, it carries no stigma now and has even become quite fashionable. To be “on the spectrum”, with a hint of Asperger’s, is to imply that you or your child might be socially a bit awkward but probably it’s because you are a high-flying geek, or even a genius.

How, then, are we supposed to sort the wheat from the chaff? What mental health issues do young people really face and are they truly getting worse? We have moved on a lot since David Cooper coined the term anti-psychiatry half a century ago, as part of a radical challenge to the whole idea of mental illness that involved such big names as Jacques Lacan, Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing. These days most experts accept that mental illness is a reality but there is still a huge area of debate as to where individual pathology ends and social issues begin, and how they interact. Even the word “experts” is problematic in any area of investigation where supposedly knowledgeable people cannot agree among themselves.

But at least the forum I attended was privileged to have on its speaker panel someone whose expertise in the field of mental health surveys is indisputable. This was Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. A specialist in epidemiological psychiatry, he was a leading contributor to the very large and prestigious Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, published last month by NHS Digital.

An expert’s exert, so to say. A witty one, too, especially in a self-deprecating way. But it was in boastful mode that he started, joking that for those who might not know what an epidemiological psychiatrist does, it means that “I don’t get out of bed for less than a thousand people.” The serious point, of course, is that his big-league number-crunching is the only way to get at meaningful trends.

Summarising those trends, he said the general level of mental illness, contrary to what had caught the headlines, was much the same as 30-40 years ago. But the level of anxiety conditions in young women aged 16-24, had gone up from 19% in about 1990 to 26% in 2014, when the new survey was conducted. He was in no doubt that this was a real and significant change. The survey had not published data on those younger than 16, but he said he was aware a similar pattern pertained in girls below this age too. Young males, by contrast, had not become more anxious. Keep in mind the gender disparity; we will return to it.

For now, though, let’s stay with the big picture, and pan out to make it even bigger. Much bigger, sweeping across the whole of our history as a species, and across the entire planet, this time taking the perspective offered by psychologist Steven Pinker, himself an expert’s expert and also one of the world’s leading public intellectuals. Sir Simon may not get out of bed for under a thousand people, but Pinker’s datasets run to the millions and even billions, and his monumental 1026-page tome The Better Angels of Our Nature has a very relevant 38-page section on children and, in recent times, the emergence of the concept of children’s rights. It includes a lot of statistical data and discussion on what the experience of childhood and growing up has been like through history and across cultures, and, in the light of this big picture, how current cultural changes in the developed countries are affecting the young, including their psychological well being.

My worry when reading Pinker was that he seemed to be painting himself into a corner, interpreting his admittedly impressive data in a naïve way, leading to the fallacy of presentism, characterised by our present culture uncritically congratulating itself on having progressed beyond the barbarities of the past towards a near-perfect now, in which present trends merely need to be pushed forward a bit further in order to achieve a society as just and flourishing as possible. I suspected I would have to write him off as another Lloyd deMause (whose work he cites), whose historical work on childhood presents a bleak picture in which children have typically suffered ghastly cruelty and every kind of abuse, including sexual coercion and rape, for millennia and only now are things getting better.

But no, Pinker avoids the trap. So what is he saying? His Better Angels book is subtitled A History of Violence and Humanity, his mission being to explore the nature of conflict and violence and the means by which we might be able to achieve a more peaceful, cooperative and, by implication, saner future which will be better for everyone’s wellbeing, including their mental health. Exploring the recently-developed concept of children’s rights, alongside other “rights revolutions” (ethnic, women, gay, animal), Pinker begins by painting a largely deMausian scene, albeit viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology rather than deMause’s Freudian approach. In particular, he invokes the insights of evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers into parent-offspring conflict to explain the tough time often given to children throughout history.

We have come a long way, he says, from the “little devil” theory of childhood, when it was felt that kids needed to be thrashed to beat out their innate depravity – colourfully portrayed by a German preacher of the 1520s who sermonised that children harboured wishes for “adultery, fornication, impure desires, lewdness, idol worship, belief in magic, hostility, quarrelling, passion, anger, strife, dissension, facetiousness, hatred, murder, drunkenness, gluttony” and, as Pinker joked, he was just getting started! Like deMause, Pinker sees the Enlightenment’s later invention of childhood “innocence” as mainly a good thing, because it ushered in several centuries in which kids have gradually been treated more kindly, with a much greater concern for their well-being and even, latterly, their rights, albeit largely in terms of the right to be protected against ill-treatment rather than a right to self-determination.

Now, here is where Pinker gets really interesting, because – backed by extensive data, remember, he doesn’t just speculate or make stuff up – he comes to recent times and draws two startling conclusions that go in different directions.

First the good news, which will certainly seem strange in view of the reports of mental health crisis I started off with. Pinker writes:

…over the past two decades the lives or children and adolescents improved in just about every way you can measure. They were less likely to run away, to get pregnant, to get into trouble with the law, and to kill themselves. England and Wales have also enjoyed a decline in violence against children…

And now the bad. The effort to protect children has begun to overshoot its target “and is veering into the realms of sacrament and taboo”. We can see where he is going, can’t we? Kids wrapped in cotton wool by anxious, risk-averse parents and  kept prisoner in their homes. As he puts it: “Children are not allowed to be outside in the middle of the day (skin cancer), to play in the grass (deer ticks), to buy lemonade from a stand (bacteria on lemon peel), or to lick batter off spoons (salmonella from uncooked eggs).” Most of all, they cannot explore on their own or with pals thanks to Stranger Danger. Interestingly, Sir Simon Wessely also singled this out as a persistent source of anxiety in our times, which it is also reasonable to suspect as a major cause not just of anxiety but also of depression and conduct problems for cooped-up kids.

Now, back to the more detailed local picture we started with: How might the specific findings of the various mental health surveys in the UK be best explained? What do they suggest in terms of how  a mentally healthier society might be achieved, especially from childhood through to the early adult years? It will have to be a two-parter this time, I’m afraid. There is no way I can cram a worthwhile response to these big questions into a sensibly-sized single blog.

What I can do, though, is give a brief taster of what is to come next time. I said above that I would return to the marked gender disparity in the figures: boys seem to have a tougher time in the pre-teen years, but after that it is the girls who are in trouble. I have a theory about that, and a fair bit of evidence to support it. I will also be drawing on some of the wisdom I encountered at various sessions in the Battle of Ideas, including not just the mental health one already touched upon but also discussions entitled “Are young people scared of sex?”, “Can neuroparenting save the family?” and “Feminism: in conversation with Camille Paglia”. I trust this leaves you feeling there is something to look forward to!

***

ABUSE INQUIRY GETS A LIFT

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) definitely needed a substantial lift after being dogged by one farcical disaster after another since its inception.

But someone took the message too literally, it seems, for now they have put an actual lift at the centre of the narrative: you know, one of those chunky, boxy things that takes people up and down in big buildings – a lift at the inquiry’s London headquarters, to be precise. It was named as a crime scene when the inquiry’s most senior lawyer was alleged to have sexually assaulted an inquiry worker within its confines.

The BBC’s Newsnight TV programme broke the story and the corporation’s online news reported that “Ben Emmerson QC was suspended in September over concerns about his conduct, but the suspension was lifted the next day when he resigned, allowing him to keep working for the inquiry for two months.” Nothing appears to have been reported to the police and, unsurprisingly, Emmerson insists nothing happened.

You know what? I don’t believe the “victim’s” story. It simply beggars belief that a guy of Emmerson’s standing, at the centre of an inquiry into sexual abuse of all things, would do anything so stupid, especially to such a person in such a place. This reeks of the victim-lobby’s non-stop manoeuvring to get their way. Publicly, they praised him when he was first suspended, but I wouldn’t put it past one or two of them – or more – to stab him in the back by concocting a yarn intended to make his position untenable but without necessarily having to make an allegation sworn on oath in court.

The “victims” would not have forgotten that Emmerson had the courage to face down at least one of their number. As Heretic TOC reported last year, he said that Sharon Evans, one of the victims’ lobby representatives on the enquiry panel, could not tell the difference between truth and error.

 

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