We shouldn’t teach children about mental health

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.

  • I’m not sure I agree with you on this… Are you saying it’s OK to teach children about physical difficulties but not mental ones because of a child accidentally misinterpreting the way they’re feeling? As a child I hurt my arm and was convinced it was going to fall off. But that’s because I was a child – this black/white thinking is a natural part of development. Also, as a psychologist I can assure you that in order for a child to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety they have to undertake quite a few tests first. If a child believes they’re struggling with anxiety/depression then the only way to understand how they’re feeling is by talking to them about what they’re feeling and educating them on the difference between feeling down/scared & depression/anxiety. It’s important to understand some key principles of child development as well; until children are a certain age they are unable to lie, then when they get a little older they are unable to lie successfully (if you have children this may even bring a slight smile to your face thinking about catching them red handed doing something & still telling you it wasn’t them…) and by the time children truly understand how to lie (& more importantly get away with it), they are the same age at which they can be tried as an adult in court. I therefore believe if a child of age 10 can be tried for murder, they should also be trusted to vocalise how they’re feeling. Roughly 75% of all mental ill health occurs before adulthood and while, this statistic has been the same for many years, there are now higher numbers of young people than ever before struggling to cope. Instead of stopping children understanding how to recognise when they need to ask for help, surely as a nation we should be asking why so many more are struggling and campaigning to stop making children ill in the first place?

  • suitedandbooted

    I have to agree with Katie on this one but speak as a parent of a child who has a mental health condition. Like the 75% my son’s condition started in childhood and got worse as an adolescent and came to a head aged 18. The fact that neither he nor I knew anything about mental health meant that his condition was allowed to go undiagnosed for years, even when he did get MH input at age 13, he was misdiagnosed and it was only after seeing a TV program on OCD /’pure O’ did I recognise my son had the same thing. Eventually he did get the correct diagnosis, medication and treatment. My point here is that we should not be learning MH conditions from just TV programs but should be part of the school curriculum, if he can learn about the brain in biology why can’t he learn how it works in relation to mental health also?. I wish he had been educated at school on mental health but I also wished I had too as it can make a huge difference in spotting mental health problems early before it gets to crisis point.

  • Children between three and seven hardly even understand ‘gender’, let alone have a desire to be other than what they are. Many years ago, ‘transgender’ wannabes were understood to be people with psychiatric problems. We have badly lost our way.

  • thammond

    Well yes. We are told that exposing children to magazines and TV ads makes them ovesecor anorexic or less likely yo be software enginerrs but that exposing to mental illness as being common and prevalent won’t make them more likely to think they suffer or worry about it.

    No doubt we undertrwated mental illness in the past, but overtreating it now won’t msake up fir that, nor does it benefit anybody by making children think normal is illness.