Young people’s mental health and well-being are more and more of a worry. Anyone who works in a school or with young people will tell the same story. Try getting a referral to CAMHS locally in Kent (CAMHS is the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) and you will find yourself waiting months and months, even for a really pressing case. At Bennett we have a team dealing with young people’s emotional and mental welfare, and they are certainly kept busy.
Part of the government’s response has been to support an initiative it calls SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) – this well-meaning but in my view utterly misguided programme attempts to ‘teach’ young people social and emotional ‘skills’. I am very dubious about this, partly because I think it can’t actually be done, and partly because I think it is wallpapering over the cracks. It may delude some people into thinking that everything is OK when it really is not. Fiddling while Rome burns, and all that.
Why am I so sceptical about what looks like such a nice idea? Unhappy children? Let the schools teach them to be happy. What could be more logical? Well, what about addressing the causes rather than the symptoms!
A lot of teenagers’ problems are caused by things like alcohol abuse, family breakdown, and access to early sexualised behaviour and language in the popular media including the internet. We can do something about all these things, both as a society and as individual parents.
Girls’ emotional health is a particular problem. Whatever happened to feminism? So-called ‘girl power’ has taken women right back to square one – and worse still, in my view. Our media now seem to project a completely single-dimensional image of girls and young women: as a sexual commodity. This has huge and devastating repercussions in terms of how young girls think about themselves and behave. We can do something about this as well.
I do think also that the uncertainty and pessimism of our times have a huge impact on young people, who are always more impressionable than either they or we tend to realise. Once again, we can actually do something about that – by modelling and articulating lasting values which hold up against short term problems and uncertainties.
Trying to teach young people systematically something as subtle and complex as ‘how to feel’ can backfire and actually be counterproductive. There is such a thing as teenage rebellion still – and a preference to reject ways of doing things which adults propose. Subjected to this sort of teaching, young people can behave as the body does towards a virus – as immunity grows the body stops reacting to the virus!
The best way to enable teenagers to be secure and happy is to model a loving, caring, trustworthy and permanent community based on lasting values of which they are part, both at school and, crucially, at home, and minimise the impact of all the destabilising and depressing influences of the media. No programme of taught ‘emotional’ skills can ever replace that.
When will someone be brave enough to say that it’s our fault that we have so many problems with teenage well-being and mental health – certainly not theirs. We have made the society they are living in, not them!