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Children’s mental health crisis

Using our kids to virtue signal adult politics fuels anxiety and depression

Until my late teens, I don’t remember encountering a single peer who had a known, diagnosed mental health condition. By the time my cohort had reached 15 years and above, there were a few known anorexics and one schizophrenic in my circle of acquaintances, which given my expat upbringing with family and friends spread over several continents, was rather large. 

Anxiety in children has become endemic

Today, hardly a day goes by without me hearing of a young person’s struggles with depression and, most of all, anxiety. And this is despite the fact that the families I’m hearing this from live in some of the safest and most prosperous places in the world.

Recent studies have confirmed my observations. A report released in February from the Children’s Commissioner of England showed a sharp increase in the number of children with mental health problems. “NHS surveys showed that before the pandemic, in 2017, one in nine children had a probable mental health disorder. That has now jumped to one in six.”

As the Sunday Times reported, that is a 50 per cent jump in just a few years. The Sunday Times article on the study also included a truly shocking statistic about anxiety in particular: 

a report published by the children’s mental health charity Place2Be found that 95 per cent of staff in UK schools have witnessed increased levels of pupil anxiety since the start of the academic year. Cathy Creswell, a professor of developmental clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, notes that “anxiety” was the top word chosen by under-14s in relation to health and wellbeing in 2021, according to research by Oxford University Press.

I use the word “shocking” and yet I’m not shocked at all. In my own experience, anxiety in children has become endemic. But what I also notice is that, at the same time as kids are getting more and more anxious, the world they inhabit is less and less dangerous. School bullying, the scourge of my childhood and something past generations were left to sort out on their own, is now a highly managed problem. And online bullying, which is awful and harder for adults to stop, at least is taken seriously. And yet more and more children are too anxious to go to school. 

So what gives?

We — and by “we” I mean primarily well-meaning, educated, Guardian readers — have politicised childhood. Children are now the ground zero, the hot zone of the culture wars. This situation is worse in the US than in the UK, but it has most definitely arrived here, the country that invented the stiff upper lip. And it’s terrible for the emotional wellbeing of children.

It begins with the problem of helicopter parenting

It begins with the well documented problem of helicopter parenting. Psychology professor, Jean Twenge, has pointed out that teens are now “physically safer than ever, yet they are more mentally vulnerable”.

The 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, warned that university students were being taught “to exaggerate danger, amplify their first emotional response, and engage in a number of other cognitive distortions”. And thus we entered the age of the trigger warning and the safe spaces on university campuses.

Since then the politicisation of younger and younger children has spread across the Atlantic to these shores. Case in point: Scottish MP Mhairi Black calling parents homophobic for complaining that she brought a drag queen by the name of FlowJob to read to primary school pupils in Paisley. 

Children have always been used as status symbols, as chattel and other bad things, but this presents a particular kind of toxicity that I don’t think we’ve seen before. It’s a new variation on the perennial problem of the mistreatment of children.

We are using our kids to virtue signal our adult politics. This is a deep betrayal. We scratch our heads over why we are seeing all these mental health problems, while also allowing children’s heads to be filled with terror over climate change, stress over Covid and confusion over the sexual issues of adults.

The sexual activities and predilections of adults have no business in classrooms, but they are creeping into British schools, one “pleasure & communication” worksheet at a time. I know if I was asked, back when I was 17, to write a school essay about a television show that discusses feeling “horny” and how to “explain what they like during sex”, I would have felt anxious too. 

The terrible irony is that there are many vulnerable children across the United Kingdom who are put in harm’s way all the time. Are they being helped by the politicisation of childhood? No. Nobody is.

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