Shot of a young child psychologist talking with a boy

    We shouldn’t teach children about mental health

    12 September 2017

    Is it necessary for children as young as eight to understand mental health? I’m not convinced, having worked with children in America – where psychiatry is all the rage.

    The kids there had perfect knowledge of what anxiety, depression, and the rest were, but never seemed any better for it. Some of them would interpret normal feelings as something sinister. Many took medication and walked around like zombies when it was play time.

    This experience is why I am so concerned about what it happening to this country when it comes to young people’s mental health, and the increasing obsession with spreading ‘awareness’ of it.

    Last week, with very good intentions, BBC Learning launched online videos to introduce the topic to primary schools, and ‘empower’ teachers. Through five short pieces, children will learn about depression, panic attacks and eating disorders, with a further 40 new clips due to be added by the end of the year.

    It is no wonder there has been this flurry of activity; experts have become concerned over the number of conditions among children, which are often referred to as ‘epidemic’. According to Public Health England, over 110,000 children – one in ten – in London has poor mental health.

    This is a troubling figure that deserves contemplation, and a sophisticated response. But I am not sure that educating all of the nation’s youth is the answer.

    What our society seems to be getting wrong at the moment, in educational settings, is prioritising the minority over the majority. This has been particularly true in regard to gender identity, where, for the sake of a small amount of children with dysphoria, almost every infant is required to explore whether they have it, too.

    Last year, for instance, Brighton and Hove City Council asked the area’s child residents – even those as young as four – to choose the gender ‘they most identify with’ on a council form. All this would be more reasonable if it wasn’t for the fact that most whippersnappers don’t give their gender identity a second thought, as confirmed by statistics.

    Data from the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) – the NHS’s only facility to help transgender children – showed that 84 children between the ages of three and seven were referred in 2016. Journalists and educators have responded to this number as if it shows gender dysphoria is rapidly growing, as it does rise in prevalence, but the fact remains that it still affects a tiny segment of the population. It wasn’t justified for Brighton and Hove City Council to question every child about their gender, in light of this.

    The same is true for mental health; it is better for policy makers to be philosophical when deciding how to treat these areas. They should aim to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. It’s about working for the majority’s needs.

    In regards to children, I worry that we are causing widespread confusion among the majority when we engage them in discourse about mental health. It’s quite a complicated concept for unaffected kids to grasp, or help their classmates with.

    There is even evidence to show that learning about mental health can be detrimental; one of the BBC’s videos is about anorexia, a disorder which can be triggered – or perpetuated – by media influence (in other words, seeing imagery and ideas around it). That is why the Netflix series To the Bone, about the eating disorder, received so much backlash, with viewers worried it might inspire others to copy the tricks of the protagonist, depicted on screen.

    Generally, the problem with showing all children videos about mental health is that they might be encouraged to pathologise their emotions, through the lexicon of psychiatrists and psychologists alike.

    Mental health is still a huge and abstract term, which – as well as including life-threatening, obvious symptoms, like psychosis and not eating – is used to explain anxiety and feelings of sadness, both of which are normal parts of the human experience.

    It can be difficult for adults to work out when they’re feeling sad versus really sad, so it does make me wonder how we expect little people to do this, too.

    None of this is to say that there are not children with significant mental health problems who greatly need our help. The same goes for gender dysphoria. But these areas must be addressed in a nuanced way, and part of that means educating the majority of adults, and a minority of children.

    Educational policy makers seem to be intent on the idea that ‘knowledge is power’ for kids, but in many cases I do not believe this is the case: thinking about these issues, if they do not affect you, can be worrying. Essentially, in trying to reduce the stigma of mental health, it is possible to increase the suggestibility of it instead.