Campaigners urge government to act on children’s wellbeing

A new UK mental health charity has called for more to be done to support children’s mental health after a YouGov poll indicated that one in five children show symptoms of depression, the BBC reports. The story follows increasing concerns (which we reported here) about young people’s mental health in the UK and internationally.

Mindfull, an online mentoring and counselling service for 11-17 year olds launched today by the BeatBullying Group, has urged that mental health needs to be added to school curriculums, but there are question marks about where the expertise to deliver such classes could come from. Since 2000, schools in the UK have been expected to teach children about mental health through PSHE, but the program has been criticised for neglecting mental health, and an Ofsted report in May noted that PSHE teachers were lacking “subject-specific training and support.”

There are a number of British schools – notably, Wellington College – that deliver emotional wellbeing classes, and in 2007, 90 teachers in schools across three regions were trained to deliver classes in emotional resilience as part of a pilot programme backed by the Department for Education – although it was not rolled out beyond the pilot. The government is yet to make further commitments to funding mental health training in schools.

The YouGov poll, which, according to reports, also indicates that a third of young people have considered suicide, raises questions about the causes of children’s mental health problems. Earlier this year, Peter Tait, head of Sherborne Preparatory School in Dorset, suggested that students’ wellbeing was being damaged by excessive emphasis on grades. It’s an issue that’s being recognised in other countries. Last week it was reported that educational reforms in China are set to shift emphasis away from testing over concerns about the impact that narrow methods of evaluation were having on students’ mental health.

In 2005 the UK’s Department for Education introduced SEAL in primary schools, which encourages a “whole school approach to promoting social and emotional skills”, but a 2010 report from the Department of Education showed mixed results, and concerns have been raised recently that the government’s emphasis on exam results has been pressuring schools to give up SEAL.

Note: Free resources for teachers wanting to deliver mental health classes are available through Young Minds, here. Children and parents concerned about mental health can also access information and helpline details through Young Minds. Further resources and information about mental health, and helplines, are available through Mind

Resilient Youth: Using Psychology To Prevent A ‘Lost Generation’

This article was originally published with the Huffington Post.

Switching on the news last night, I heard a young graduate telling a reporter, “I’ve done everything that society told me to do, and I’m still not finding employment.” As his words trailed off, the despair in his voice seemed to capture a generation that’s feeling let down and unsure where to turn. Increasingly, recent surveys from NUS and The Prince’s Trust suggest, the blame seems to be turning inwards.

There is research showing that in previous periods of high youth unemployment, those affected continued to be hampered professionally and socially long after the recession ended – a phenomenon that has been described as the ‘scarring effect’. It’s data like this that gives some weight to the otherwise melodramatic claim that today’s young people will go down in history as a ‘lost generation’.

One explanation for the scarring effect is the psychological impact of unemployment. Research links unemployment with a perceived loss of control, and what some psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’ . Feelings of helplessness are a predictor of depression . They are also linked to decreased work performance – a correlation that exists not just in the western world, but globally .

There might be good reason for young people to feel helpless. 75 million young people around the world are out of work, the value of a degree has tumbled, and the so-called ‘scarring effect’ suggests that history isn’t on their side. But in the last recession psychological research and interventions were less developed. And what the latest research tells us is that helplessness is not inevitable and it can be reversed .

When a young american psychologist called Martin Seligman was researching depression in the late 1960’s, he found that if people were subjected to repeated and uncontrollable stressors then they would often come to resign themselves to their plight, remaining inactive even when opportunities to change their circumstances arose – a condition which he called ‘learned helplessness’. What he also found was that whilst some acquired this condition, others seemed to be more resistant. When he looked for distinctions between the two groups, he discovered that they had different ways of explaining the source of stress; those that were more resistant tended to see the stressor as confined and temporary.

The findings were consistent with assumptions underlying the emerging field of cognitive behavioural therapy, and Seligman hypothesised that if he could train people to develop a more optimistic ‘explanatory style’ using ideas from CBT then he could teach them to be more resilient to stress. His ideas gained support and helped establish a new field of research known as ‘positive psychology’, which argued that wellbeing is a legitimate focus for researchers and policymakers. This ‘wellbeing movement’ now spans psychology, economics, and politics, led by organisations such as Action for Happiness and the New Economics Foundation.

Governments and businesses have picked up on the science and are transforming it into policy and interventions. Wellbeing programs have been introduced in certain schools – Wellington College, for instance, holds wellbeing classes for its students, and school PSHE programs are teaching emotional skills. But despite graduate employers criticising a lack of soft skills, wellbeing programs have not (as Anthony Seldon of Wellington College notes) been rolled out for students in higher education.

Given that educational institutions are supposed to be at the cutting edge of science, it’s surprising that most seem to be so far behind the curve, with some members of academia (such as this Vice Chancellor) apparently not believing that learning has much to do with psychology at all.

Counselling services have increasingly taken it upon themselves to offer group sessions on topics such as mindfulness and stress management, but these are limited to the narrow financial and political confines of ‘student support’. Research links a perceived sense of control with job searching strategies , motivation at work , and entrepreneurial potential . As employability and enterprise agendas continue to grow, it’s time that applied psychology was recognised as being crucial not just to student support but to student development.

So how we do this? For starters, universities can work to strengthen ties between support services and careers centres, bringing together mutually-compatible expertise; careers centres can look to offer students psychological training, and the growing number of university programs encouraging extra-curricular personal development can promote and accredit initiatives that help build resilience. The evidence base is out there; let’s apply it.

I’m not suggesting that a focus on applied psychology is a substitute for social action; it won’t solve the issues of inflated tuition fees and struggling jobs markets. But if psychology can help young people to gain an advantage over the problems they are facing then it might be enough to give them a bit more hope for the future. And if we act now, just maybe when we look back in ten or twenty years the young people of today will be known not as a ‘lost’ generation but as a resilient one.

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