What’s causing the growth of poor mental health in young people? One Headteacher’s viewpoint

Posted On Jun 03, 2020 by George Hartley

I’ve worked in Education for 30 years, first as a Geography teacher and then as Headteacher at an Independent school in Guernsey and over the last 3 years at The King’s School in Chester. Having taught and worked with hundreds of children over that time for me there is no doubt that mental health issues amongst the young, presents schools with our biggest challenge today. Forget academic performance, forget employability, forget even Coronavirus for now if you can. Mental health issues represent the biggest hurdle to children’s well-being and I’ve been alarmed by the the apparent growth in the number of children with such issues during the time I’ve been working in education.

Why has it grown so significantly and why do we immediately associate the phrase ‘mental health’ in a negative way?

The latter question perhaps answers itself in that by default, most things ‘mental’ are perceived in an adverse way. It’s also the reason we talk about ‘mental fitness’ at King’s school rather than mental health, in an attempt to be positive and proactive about the topic with our pupils.


Some might argue that the increase in mental health problems is simply a case of detection and diagnosis i.e. the problem has always existed but we’ve become better at identifying it amongst individuals, perhaps as part of a more sensitive and caring culture. Whilst there may be an element of truth in this – I can certainly remember with a shudder some colleagues at school being effectively told to ‘get on with it’ if they were feeling very low (and that would not happen now) – the quantitative rise in cases indicates an almost definite and significant increase.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, social media is often blamed for the deterioration of mental health amongst the young. It does seem to be the scapegoat for many of society’s evils. I’m not sure how fair or accurate this is, not least because there’s no clear correlation between the use of social media (which is frankly endemic amongstyoung people) and serious mental health cases.


Could it be related to drink and drugs? Again, perhaps in some cases, but unlikely as a key factor as the incidence of drinking and drug-taking has actually been decreasing nationally amongst secondary aged children for a number of years now.


Or maybe it’s the result of a general sense of worthlessness and irrelevance in the modern, material-focussed world of capitalism? Whilst I have no doubt that many people feel this way at some point in their adult lives, at the risk of patronising the young, I honestly don’t think this is something that most children are aware of; for a start, how are they meant to be affected by something they haven’t tangibly experienced yet?


The importance of first 1000 days in a child’s emotional development

If I was forced to pick one key factor that’s likely to have a greater influence on a young person’s mental health than anything else, we’d have to start by turning back the clock and go way back, back to a time of nappies, pureed food and waddling about. It’s well-established now that the first two years of someone’s life, often alternatively referred to as the ‘first 1000 days’, is by far the most crucial in their emotional development. This is where the scene is set, the die is cast and the seeds are sown.


It’s not a particularly new theory by any means. In fact, I was surprised to see this very concept referred to in detail in the 1972 bestseller ‘I’m Ok You’re Ok’ – Thomas Harris’ excellent and seminal guide to the practical application of transactional analysis. Harris hypothesises that all children start out in a life position of ‘I’m not ok, you’re ok’ and that it is up to parents to nurture, care and love them during their first few years in a way that, well, will make them ‘ok’. There’s a lot more to the book than that (I’d especially recommend it to new parents as well as anyone who can’t understand why so many adults can still be incredibly immature at times), though the fundamental premise is there. Who you are and how you feel about yourself at 16 is largely pre-determined by the time you reach your 2nd birthday.


This is why I was so impressed by the excellent work of Platform for Life and very pleased to join their board as a Trustee. Rather than the more traditional approach of providing counselling and therapy for ‘individuals with problems’, the charity explicitly takes a family-based approach to mental health issues. Given such issues are very often passed down from one generation to the next, this means that the cycle can be broken, especially where people who are about to become parents themselves can be effectively treated.


Helping look after the children of tomorrow

This approach was articulated in more detail in my first trustees meeting by the charity’s Lead Practitioner Della Austin, who eloquently explained that one of her most important jobs in treating clients is to help look after the children of tomorrow. Such a long-term and sustainable approach – not a paradigm used by many people in today’s world with the apparent need for ‘quick fixes’ – was very refreshing to hear and provided one of my light bulb moments of recent years. This is why I’m so pleased to be supporting Platform for Life as a Trustee. Not only is the charitydealing directly with the biggest issue we face amongst the young today, it’s targeting those in society who live in poverty and struggle the most to access proper mental health support. And doing it in a way that should make a lasting difference; to individuals, families and communities.


With Mental Health Awareness Week having just taken place and in the middle of Child Safety Week, there’s no better time to do all that we possibly can to support the mental fitness of young people in Chester. I’m proud to play my part in that, both as Head of The King’s school and as a Trustee of Platform for Life.


George Hartley is Headteacher at The King’s School Chester. He’s originally from Weald in Kent and started his career in Education as a Geography teacher. In 2009 he was appointed as Headmaster of Elizabeth College school in Guernsey, moving in 2017 to take up his current position at The King’s School.