Are we (or they) driving kids crazy?


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!



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.


The consequences of consequentialism


A big thank you to everyone – and I do mean everyone – who has commented on Why children may want to keep a secret. This has been an exceptionally lively debate, now amounting to well over 11,000 words and it ain’t necessarily over yet. Inevitably, some words of real wisdom in all this will be overlooked, failing to make the impression they deserve.

The ones I most strongly feel need to be rescued from oblivion came in a contribution by T. Rivas, when he talked about the development of society over decades or centuries. In his view, “the development of human and ‘even’ animal rights since the period of Enlightenment is part of an inevitable progress in civilization and leaving behind barbarity”. After a certain point, he says, “the moral and emancipatory progress cannot be undone anymore, because it has become an intrinsic part of rational moral progress. This point has been reached with women’s and gay rights in many parts of the Western world and more and more people are realizing that animal rights are simply another strictly logical consequence of respect for the individual. One day, the same will happen with erotic and relational rights of children and pedophiles.”

Heretic TOC will not here be concerned with whether Rivas is right or wrong as to the inevitability of moral progress, except to say that brilliant minds have argued the point at least since the great burgeoning of rationalist optimism in the 18th century Enlightenment to which he refers. The political philosopher John Gray, for example, insists in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, that “the old Adam” will out: human moral frailty is always with us; the perfectibility of man is an illusion; our selfishness, arrogance and shortsightedness render us vulnerable to all sorts of disaster, such as man-made climate change apocalypse. Psychologist Steven Pinker, on the other hand, argues in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that we are gradually becoming less violent.  He suggests that moral progress, although not inevitable, is likely to continue thanks to factors which have already proved beneficial, such as increased education, mutual interdependence through trade, and the spread of democracy.

Among those impressed by Pinker’s analysis is moral philosopher Peter Singer, a name particularly relevant here in view of Rivas’s reference to animals, concern for whom was pioneered by Singer in his 1976 book Animal Liberation. When Rivas speaks of “people…realizing that animal rights are simply another strictly logical consequence of respect for the individual”, he appears to be invoking something like historian W.H. Lecky’s concept, developed by Singer, of human concern as an expanding circle which begins with the individual, then embraces the family, then ever wider social groups up to nations, and eventually all humanity and even beyond, with animals included.

There is a long tradition, subscribed to in their very different ways by Hobbes, Kant, Rousseau and numerous other such luminaries, that the needs and interests of individuals might be given consideration if they are rational beings capable of thrashing out between themselves what the rules of good conduct should be. Having agreed on the rules (which find some approximation in law and government) and come to a sort of social contract, social justice is then expressed primarily in terms of individuals’ rights and responsibilities. As non-rational creatures, so the reasoning went, children and animals (and women!) might be owed a duty of care by their “owners” but if they had no responsibilities they could have no rights.

Jeremy Bentham bypassed all that contractual thinking. Regarding animals, he said the key question was not “Can they reason?” but “Can they suffer?” His so-called Utilitarian (a ghastly word which fails to capture the majestic power of the concept) philosophy focused on the amount of happiness or unhappiness we experience, which translates in crude but very important terms to pleasure versus pain. We all know about pain, in particular, whether physical or emotional, and the tremendous imperative to avoid it, especially as regards extreme suffering.

Singer’s approach, like Bentham’s, is Utilitarian. This has enabled him to focus our thinking on making choices that maximize the amount of pleasure we all experience and minimize the pain. The former might sound a bit trivial and hedonistic, but the latter is definitely not, especially when it comes to concerning ourselves with such questions as the horrors and degradation of keeping slaves or exploiting workers in dangerous sweatshops – or the suffering of battery chickens and laboratory animals. What he asks us to do, rather than legalistically concerning ourselves with rational capacity (which includes, incidentally, the concept of “informed consent” as applied to children), and rights tied to responsibilities, is to focus instead on the consequences of our actions when measured against a very clear ethical principle: will our actions tend to increase or decrease the sum total of suffering?

Used properly, this approach can be very illuminating: see for instance the way Singer uses it to test the mettle of our moral beliefs in his essay The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.  Lesser thinkers than Singer, however, have invalidly seized upon very well known and obvious limitations of “consequentialist” thinking (e.g. the impossibility of predicting the consequences of one’s actions with certainly), in an effort to trash it entirely. I encountered a classic example myself only recently, when a certain person who shall remain nameless sought to consign my review of Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger memoir to the garbage can on the basis that it is “wrapped up in consequentialist morality”, as though that automatically invalidated it.  My interlocutor appeared to believe that consequentialism can be used to justify anything, such as slavery. And so it can, if it is misapplied, and all the other major systems of ethics can be misapplied too: “virtue” ethics, for example, can be used lazily to make a virtue of anything that is traditionally approved of, no matter how dubious – “virtuous” paedophiles please note! For instance, even a “proper” philosopher, such as Roger Scruton, manages to conclude that cruelty to animals can be justified as the legitimate pursuit of a virtuous man when it happens to be the traditional pursuit of respected people, such as the fox-hunting English gentry. Ironically, after bad-mouthing consequentialist reasoning, my critic then proceeded to deploy it himself in a way which might be worth examining in a future blog.

For now, though, I’ll just give another prize example – this time used against Singer – of what we might dub “consequentialism abuse”. Perhaps we need a law against it.  Victims such as Singer and myself might then get lots of sympathetic media coverage and be able to claim compensation! This time the villain is one Moshe Averick, who was ordained as a rabbi but became a theology teacher rather than a priest. Unsurprisingly, the rabbi dislikes atheism, and he wrote:

…the logical and philosophical consequences of atheists’ belief systems are inescapable. When asked by journalist William Crawley if he thought that pedophilia was “just wrong”, Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University – a world-famous philosopher of “ethics” – responded as follows:

“I don’t have intrinsic moral taboos. My view is not that anything is just wrong…You’re trying to put words in my mouth.”

Singer went on to explain that he is a “consequentialist.” For the benefit of the philosophically challenged let me explain “consequentialism” in a nutshell: If you like the consequences it’s ethical, if you don’t like the consequences it’s unethical. Thus, if you enjoy child pornography and having sex with children it’s ethical, if you dislike child pornography and having sex with children it’s unethical. In an article entitled Heavy Petting, Singer likewise gave his stamp of approval to bestiality. As a reward for producing such pearls of wisdom, he has been granted the privilege of teaching our children “ethics” at an Ivy League university.

Apart from making it clear via this satirically outrageous misrepresentation why the rabbi does not teach at an Ivy League university, this little extract from his snappily titled article A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It Is Too Late usefully alerts us to matters of rather greater interest than himself. One is the claim that Singer supports “bestiality”, despite the fact that his fame was built on a radical insistence animals should be treated well, with respect and dignity. Another is the hint that Singer may not necessarily be against paedophilia either. But is any of this true?

Let’s take “bestiality” first, as this is easy to check out. The article in question, Heavy Petting, is a review of a book by Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers called Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, which I have read and highly recommend. Singer is careful to say that sexually violent acts towards animals are clearly wrong, but that is not the whole story. He says:

But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty. Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the legs of a visitor and vigorously rubbing its penis against them? The host usually discourages such activities, but in private not everyone objects to being used by her or his dog in this way, and occasionally mutually satisfying activities may develop.

As for paedophilia, Singer has understandably been less forthcoming: he has an Ivy League job, after all, and presumably wants to keep it. So he did not allow journalist William Crawley to put words into his mouth, nor did he rise to the bait, so far as I am aware, when another journalist, William Saletan, in a Slate article none too subtly titled Shag the dog, tried to hook him with this challenge:

What about Singer? He has often compared the mental ability of higher animals to that of children. Does he think this level of comprehension is sufficient to give consent to sex? If the answer is no, isn’t zoophilia wrong? If the answer is yes, isn’t pedophilia OK?

Singer’s fellow philosopher Tom Regan, himself a supporter of animal rights, agrees with the implication from Saletan: the argument that favours “bestiality” could be used to justify having sex with children. Regan writes that Singer’s position is a consequence of his adopting a consequentialist approach to the moral status of animals rather than a strictly rights-based one, and he argues that a rights-based position distances itself from non-consensual sex.

Regan’s position is logical, I think, but that does not mean Singer is wrong; indeed, it would be fascinating to hear what the latter might say about paedophilia were he free to do so without suffering serious consequences. Unfortunately, though, that is a “consequentialist” consideration Singer is unlikely to overlook!

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