Tackling teenage anxiety and depression

Last month the Department for Education published worrying findings showing that more than one in three teenage girls suffer from anxiety or depression. This constituted a rise of 10 per cent in the past decade.

According to Nick Harrop, campaigns manager of national charity Young Minds, said that, ‘Teenage girls today face a huge range of pressures. Stress at school, body image worries, early sexualisation, bullying on and offline and uncertainty about the future after school are all piling on the stress. Social media also puts pressure on girls to live their lives in the public domain, to present a personal ‘brand’ from a young age, and to seek reassurance in the form of likes and shares.’

The former mental health tsar and co-founder of The Self-Esteem Team, Natasha Devon, highlighted changes to the education system brought in by the current government: ‘Education policies have squeezed all the things that help mental health like sports, arts, music and dance out of the curriculum in state schools,’ she explained. ‘School has become more stressful.’

The situation appears to be deteriorating – the Centre for Mental Health also published a report this entitled ‘Missed opportunities: children and young people’s mental health’. It found a 10-year average delay between the time that young people first experience symptoms and receive help. Only a quarter of school-age children with a diagnosable problem receive any intervention at all – despite most parents of these children seeking professional advice. And, when children and families do seek help, they are frequently confused by a maze of largely fragmented services and often face lengthy delays to get the help they need.

Among the 11-15 age group, the report found that when early symptoms of adult mental illness – including psychosis – begin, evidence indicates that by limiting the length and the recurrence of episodes of mental illness during adolescence, there is a lower risk of problems extending into adult years. But, despite this, teenagers tend to be less likely to know when their mental health is deteriorating and feel stigma keenly.

So what is to be done? Inside secondary schools, there needs to be a whole-systems approach, creating a health-promoting environment and securing the commitment of the entire school workforce in promoting emotional support and well-being for all their pupils. This can be assisted by the Department for Education reversing the trend towards focusing on grades only, and to offer a wider curriculum of activities that promotes both attainment and wellbeing.

Additionally, the role of regional and local government has a more important role than ever as a strategic partner and commissioner in encouraging schools to provide emotional support to all their pupils, where increased wellbeing will in turn improve attainment.

The Labour party needs to be a trailblazer on this subject, not only in its national policy commitments, but also through the 40 per cent of local authorities that Labour currently run, and by our newly elected regional mayors who can lead the changes in emphasis which are so badly needed. This autumn, a first step towards recommunicating the importance of mental health will be to restore its shadow cabinet position. Please support the Labour Campaign for Mental Health call to have this post restored.

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Jonathan Slater is mental health champion at the London borough of Lewisham. He tweets @JGSlater

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