Children’s Mental Health and Societal Pressures

What is happening to our society? How and when did we lose the joy of just being alive? Increasing numbers of our children are depressed, anxious and in need of urgent medical help. Researchers from UCL Institute of Education and the University of Liverpool have found that 25% of girls and 9% of boys are depressed at age 14.

I am no psychologist but here are my thoughts. Girls are bombarded from an early age by images on social media and television of doctored professionally made up images of celebrities exhibiting the perfect body shape, the perfect skin etc. only to discover that they do not live up to that ideal. Dissatisfaction and anxiety take hold.

The diet industry then steps in with fad dieting plans and counting calories, girls then declare war on food with battle lines drawn, food is no longer a pleasurable experience but a means to get the right shape and the right body weight. So the joy of eating becomes a misery and food is the enemy with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia on the increase.

Slowly they begin to look inwards, not seeing the beauty around them and taking pleasure from interacting with fellow human beings. They turn to Facebook and other social media to see the lives of their peers. They see false images of other girls smiling and seeming to be happy and joyful. Of course, the reality is very likely that they are not; they are probably just as miserable and the smiles and poses of happiness are only for the camera.

How did it come to this? In this age of gender equality, the aspirations of an increasing number of our girls seem to be related to their appearance, body shape, weight etc. Those who rise above that and are career oriented are, like the boys, subjected to other pressures. Schools are graded according to the exam results they achieve, putting pressure on the teachers who transfer it to their pupils. All this creates an atmosphere that tells the child their future happiness depends on the results of their examinations.

More pressure is then piled on those children to do well in school by parents anxious about their children’s future. And what if they do well in exams and go to university? They then find themselves saddled with enormous debt before even starting their working lives. And where will they live? The ability to own your own home is but a distant dream.

We have created a society where insecurities in our lives are dominant, insecurity at work where workers rights are continuously being eroded, and in which the gig economy and zero contract hours are becoming the norm. We have been enslaved by our work, working harder and earning less. Many households are in debt and worrying about paying the mortgage or rent. This pressure on parents is transferred to, and felt by. our children. Is it any wonder that our children are anxious and depressed!

Where do we go from here? It seems to me the priority must be to provide the professional support to help future generations cope with the pressures of simply existing in a society where the basic needs of life, shelter, warmth, education are becoming less secure. Insecurity leads to stress, anxiety and depression.

Yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. What an indictment of our system! What problems are we storing for the future? In addition to the unbearable psychological distress, there is an economic cost associated with mental illness. Estimates put the cost to Britain at £70- 100 billion each year, equivalent to 4.5% of the country’s GDP. Does the NHS allocate enough resources to mental health? The King’s Fund answers the question thus:

The financial squeeze affecting many public services is creating intense pressure in some parts of the mental health system. Some have asked whether mental health receives a fair share of NHS funding. Mental health problems account for 23 per cent of the burden of disease in the United Kingdom, but spending on mental health services consumes only 11 per cent of the NHS budget.

Mental health problems are an issue that needs to be addressed urgently. We as a society and our government must accept that mental illness is as devastating to the sufferer and our economy as physical illness if not more so. The bias in resources allocated by the NHS must be eliminated. Once that is achieved we need to then turn our attention to societal problems that create anxiety, uncertainty and stress leading to mental illness.

Let us rediscover the joy of simply Being Alive.

Adnan Al-Daini (PhD, Birmingham University, UK) is a retired University Engineering lecturer. He is a British citizen born in Iraq. He writes regularly on issues of social justice and the Middle East. Read other articles by Adnan.