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The impact of the lack of time

31 October 2016

As one third of the Self-Esteem Team, an organisation which visits schools and colleges all over the UK and works with children and teenagers on issues such as poor body image, self-harm and exam stress, the breadth and urgency of the mental health crisis facing young people and, as a consequence, their teachers, does not need explaining to me. Wearing my ‘other hat’ as a journalist and TV pundit, however, I find myself constantly having to explain it to others. After many TV debates, much newspaper column ping-pong and countless twitter spats, I concluded that I was wasting my time. There is little point, for example, in trying to persuade Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, the wife of Michael Gove (the man who believed the systemic problems with our antiquated education system could be solved by forcing children to learn Keats by wrote) that the prospect of unemployment or a poor standard of living in a rapidly changing world is the cause of anxiety for many sixth formers and students. So I’ve chosen instead to focus on what we can all agree on – What young people today do not have: Time. Time to process and think. Time to play. Time to be creative. Time to be bored. And the impact on their mental health is catastrophic, because in those still moments of imagination, play and boredom we develop the coping strategies which help us combat every day stress. Young people live in a world of constant stimulation. As a friend observed to me just recently, we can’t even wait 30 seconds in a queue for coffee any more without reaching for our smart phones. Everything must be documented – I know three year olds who have already perfected their ‘selfie pose’. Children internalise ideals of masculinity, femininity, beauty and success dictated by an individualistic, consumerist capitalist and neoliberal society, primed to profit from their inevitable insecurity. At school, they are trained in competition instead of collaboration. They are told that being able to memorise and regurgitate a fairly arbitrary set of facts under exam conditions is akin to intelligence. They often watch their parents work long hours, or struggle to make ends meet. The activities which make us naturally resilient and self-aware – sports, arts, music and drama – have been squeezed out of the curriculum, replaced instead by a ‘resilience agenda’ and ‘character education’ - theory lessons on how to cope with life and the unmistakable message that failure to do so is a personal failure and indicative of a lack of ‘grit’. We aren’t teaching children the health coping mechanisms they need to survive and then we are surprised when they land upon toxic ones, like self-harm or addiction to online ‘likes’. None of this is indicative of a lack of intelligence on the part of young people – It’s a reflection of a messed up society which has its priorities all wrong and the nature of a human brain which responds more to repetition than to logic. So that is why I do what I do – I try to instil back into school culture the three skills crucial for mental health – critical thinking, development of healthy coping strategies and the ability to communicate about emotion (and to be on the receiving end of that communication). These are the lost skills whose absence has given birth to a disillusioned generation, struggling to hold it together. It all boils down to a lack of time. Natasha Devon MBE is the co-founder of The Self-Esteem Team, which deliver workshops in schools and colleges on mental health, body image and exam stress. Natasha is speaking at AoC’s SEND Conference on Wednesday 14 December. View the programme and book online.