Mental health crisis or moral panic?

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Ann John is Professor of Public Health and Psychiatry at Swansea University in Wales. She has recorded a talk for Four Thought, a BBC radio programme and podcast, on the issue of young people and mental health. Much of the current discussion reminds Ann of the panic about the MMR vaccine that was a hot topic back in the days when she was a family doctor.

John has three children and has been a primary school parent for the last 21 years. Over that time, she has noticed a growing awareness of mental health issues among young people. This is a good thing because, as she explains, “Children and young people’s mental health has been overlooked and under-diagnosed for years.”

John notes that this has led to a discussion about causes. “You must have seen all those headlines about the epidemic of young people’s mental health. All those stigmatising photographs of teenagers with their heads held in their hands… everyone should just be kind or be mindful or stop taking exams and it would all be sorted.”

However, John asks whether aspects of growing-up that we previously just considered, well, aspects of growing-up have become medicalised. “We may have lost the collective memory of the normal human experience of adolescence, its discomfort and heightened sensitivity to peer exclusion and with that, the ability to judge the difference between the ups and downs of life and poor mental health.”

John voices the concern that the apparent rise in mental health issues may be a result of greater awareness and reporting. However, she does note a connection with increased poverty. The problem is that resources tend to accrue to the more affluent parts of society – university mental health services, for instance – rather than benefiting youngsters in areas of severe deprivation where needs are greatest. There is a chance that the ‘worried well’ are cornering limited resources.

And John has some interesting points to make about the positive influence of social media. I certainly remember the visceral, tribal enmity between my comprehensive school and the neighbouring one but, according to John, social media networks are acting to break down those kinds of divisions. And whereas we are now deeply concerned about online bullying, we should not forget the real pain and distress caused by old-fashioned, face-to-face bullying.

There is a broad issue here that I believe also connects to student behaviour. Through mechanisms such as Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), we have seen behaviours and experiences that may once have been classified as part of the spectrum of normal life, even if they are destructive or antisocial, become classified as a disorder. Proponents then push these definitions to the level of a disability with all of the attendant legislative implications. I believe that we need to think through the consequences of young people being labelled with mental disorders, not least the internalisation of these labels and the potential loss of personal agency that may go with it.


3 thoughts on “Mental health crisis or moral panic?

  1. I went to a mental illness/health talk last night and wondered whether the pendulum is beginning to swing too far to one side. I know some people have true mental health issues and I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through what can be scary and traumatic times. But it almost seems like we have to swing so much to the ‘normalising’ or ‘celebratory’ aspect of mental illness before it can die down and take its normal, neutral and acceptable place within society.

  2. Therapeutic Education replacing knowledge. I see this focus in many of my daughter’s subjects. There is a continuous push to focus on the individual person, their feelings/thoughts rather than then world around them. Next year she (yr 10) Science is psychology. I’ve never heard of this before. I thought science was biology, chemistry and physics. I’m betting that plenty of wellbeing will be thrown into the mix. Then I heard that students at the biggest school in Brisbane have to choose between philosophy and psychology for yr 10. Is it becoming a thing?

  3. I agree we pathologise and medicate children adolescents and adults far too quickly. We strive for happiness and yes ignore and demonise our other human emotions that are an evolutionary tool of survival in threatening and challenging situations and relationships. From the point of view of poverty, the ACES study looks at the effect of adverse childhood experiences on our humanity throughout our lives and is a more human way of understanding our distress rather than throwing the DSM book at people and pathologising away our natural reactions to life. Many of us live in a state of flight, fright or freeze to the vicissitudes of life without even realising.

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