At the beginning of this month, campaigner and entrepreneur Natasha Devon was dropped as the Conservative government’s ‘mental health champion’ in the Department of Education having only been appointed to the role in August of last year. The role was created to raise awareness of mental health problems, particularly among young people, and to reduce the stigma that still surrounds mental health today. The newly created role was initially seen as an unlikely progressive stance by the Tories, and thus axing the role after such a short period of time has led to questions about the government’s true opinion on mental health. The decision to drop Devon was supposedly the consequence of her speaking out against the rigorous testing in schools that is currently placed upon children, and the effect it has on their mental health:
“At one end of the scale we’ve got four-year-olds being tested, at the other end of the scale we’ve got teenagers leaving school and facing the prospect of leaving university with record amounts of debt. Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”
Since coming to power in the coalition government in 2010, and now holding a majority, the Conservatives have made drastic cuts to all mental health services, but the most severe changes have been to child and adolescent services. Since 2010, 34 out of 51 local authorities in England have had a reduced CAMHS budget, with one council reporting a 41% cut to services. This news comes despite the fact that demand for such services has risen by approximately 20% in the last five years. In January this year, David Cameron promised to invest a further £1 billion injection in to mental health services; a welcome proposal when the system is in such dire need of funding, but ultimately the damage has already been done.
With the Tory record on mental health being less than impressive, Devon was right to openly criticise the government for the effect that its policies in other areas are having are having on children’s mental health. Education and mental health are becoming increasingly intertwined with one another. The average age for the onset of depression in the 1960s was 45, yet today it is just 14. Diagnoses of eating disorders and anxiety, as well as instances of self-harm in children and teenagers are up by 600%. There are many theories as to why this is; greater access to a wide range of media where there is an increased pressure on young boys and girls to look and act a certain way, or perhaps it is the case that the greater awareness of such issues has led to more young people feeling comfortable enough to speak out and seek help. But, it is hard to ignore the fact that the average age for the onset of these problems coincide with what is considered the most important years of a teenager’s education.
Natasha Devon has worked tirelessly to promote positive discussions of mental health for a decade now, from talking to children in the classroom, to sharing her own stories of eating disorders and body image. Yet her experience with the Department for Education demonstrates that the road to the actual, appropriate implementation of mental health support for children and teenagers to blocked by the refusal of the Conservative government to acknowledge the damaging effects austerity is having both in education and in mental health. Devon recalls facing unanswered calls from the DfE, and describes the dealings with the department like ‘talking to a brick wall’. The only time that she did receive any contact from the department, it was to reprimand her for speaking out against the government.
The Tories undoubtedly have a long way to go. Currently the Labour Party is the only political party to have a minister solely dedicated to improving mental health in the UK. The move to appoint Natasha Devon in the first place was a welcomed surprise, given the track record the Tories have had on mental health it seemed too good to be true – and it was. The short lived appointment of Natasha Devon, a woman with a huge following from young people and teachers in particular, should be seen as an act of silencing. How was she meant to carry out her role in the most effective way without directly challenging the direct causes of mental health problems in children and teenagers? If the Tories do have a genuine interest in turning around the mental health crisis that they created, then the party as a whole will have to face some hard truths. Its current approaches to education might make monetary sense to the Conservatives, but no government should have a monopoly on a child’s mental health.
[Image: REX Photography]