Body Image and Mental Health

Part of Exiting the European Union (Transport) – in the House of Commons at 2:54 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Mental Health) 2:54 pm, 23rd July 2019

Yes, those points are well made. We must do much more in the classroom to help young people grapple with social media issues and pressures, and to develop positive mental health and coping strategies so they can do that. We also have to help parents, like me and others here today, to understand social media; often children are far ahead of us and it can be very difficult for us to regulate what is happening online and make sure it is safe and secure.

I also commend the work of the all-party group on mentoring and the Diana Award. I recently went to a number of their events, one up in Scotland at Holyrood and one at Westminster just a few weeks ago. They are doing fantastic work to help young people who are being bullied in school and to provide peer mentors, because often, as we know, young people listen to other young people rather than parents or teachers. The work they are doing is going a long way in giving young people skills to understand how to challenge bullying, and to promote good mental health and to understand that it is very important that we support each other in society, rather than doing each other down. I commend them for their work.

I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for textiles and fashion, which is undertaking an inquiry into inclusion in the industry. We have started our inquiry sessions, which have been extremely interesting. We have heard that although the industry is trying to become more diverse and to promote more diversity among its models and the work that it prints, there are still many challenges and barriers for young disabled people and plus-size people in becoming models or getting into the industry at any level. We hope that the inquiry will highlight and raise awareness of the issues and ensure that the industry lives up to our expectations that it should be inclusive and diverse, just as the United Kingdom is.

The all-party parliamentary group on psychology recently conducted a research study that showed that although the number of abusive posts to politicians was almost equal across the genders, the content was quite different. Whereas male politicians were criticised for their position on a policy, female politicians were much more often criticised for the way they looked, held to account for not wearing the right things in Parliament—according to whoever they thought was the fashion guru—or trying to do them down based on their personality or personal appearance. That shows the stereotypes that must be overcome and the challenges in feeling confident in politics. We must support everyone to make sure we have a diverse Parliament moving forward.

When I highlighted this debate online today, my constituents asked me not to forget to mention how men are affected in terms of body image. That is such a good point. We often speak about the impact on women, and I have been doing that in much of my speech. They said, “Please don’t fail to mention how men are impacted because this is increasingly an issue in society, and the same stereotypes apply: having to be really buff, no matter what your day entails or if you are running about trying to juggle lots of different things. Always having time to go to the gym and to look fabulous and have all the best clothes etc—these things also put pressure on young men.” I attended a very sad but poignant tribute at the weekend to my constituent Ryan Coleman, who sadly took his own life. We really cannot underestimate the pressures on young men’s mental health nowadays in society. It is incumbent on Governments across the United Kingdom to ensure that young men as well as young women feel able to come forward, be referred and take up services; there is often much more stigma for young men in accessing services and acknowledging some of these issues.

We have spoken about cosmetic procedures. I do not have too much detail to speak about on that, but I am aware that there is not much regulation of such procedures and it is important that we get on top of that. As the Minister and the shadow Minister mentioned, when things go wrong, it is not just like having to go back to the hairdressers and getting a different colour put on. Cosmetic procedures can have a permanent impact on people, or affect them for a very long time, so regulation in this market is important. Other markets may be diminishing, but this market is growing exponentially so we definitely need to have regulation in place.

When I worked with people who have eating disorders, we knew from the research that body image was a core part of the issue that people struggled with. It is not just about weight; it is about cognition. It is about how people think about themselves. I worked with young people who were growing thinner by the day and had anorexia nervosa but felt that they were fat. When they looked at themselves in the mirror, they saw themselves as overweight and strove to lose more and more weight. When an eating disorder develops over time, we know that cognition becomes affected. That is why it is very important that people can be referred to local services. I know how difficult that can be.

When I was doing some work in mental health primary care, the problems in referring someone to tertiary care and eating disorder services were almost insurmountable. People had to go through the community mental health team. Weight comes into it again. They might not be quite at the threshold, but everyone in the family and the clinicians knows that the person is developing an eating disorder. We must have services that accept people, and a clear clinical pathway. Otherwise, by the time people arrive at the service that they need, their condition has deteriorated so much that they may need to be admitted to hospital.

We also need to ensure that we can treat people with eating disorders as close to home as possible. They often need cognitive behaviour therapy or family therapy, and families really need to be involved in that care. If the care is taking place 20 or 30 miles away from where the person lives, it is so difficult for families who are grappling with all the other demands on their time to be as involved as they really want to be.

Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week this year, the Scottish Government announced a new advisory group on body image and young people’s mental health. It is important to have that group up and working; to be thinking about the issues that test young people today. We need to be ahead of the curve. The Scottish Government also recently announced a package of funds for social media advice for young people. We are very aware of the impact of social media. When we are looking through magazines, we can put them down and go off and do something else, but social media is constant. I see this with young people, including my own children: as soon as their phone rings—ding ding—they have to look. Social media is almost like an addiction. I am sure that the companies love that because people are becoming so reliant on it. We need to make sure that our young people have varied lifestyles; that they get out and about in the fresh air, as my mum used to say. I am repeating my mother now. I hope she is listening. I never thought that I would get to that stage, but there you are, I am. It is important for health.

I am extremely pleased to have spoken in this debate. I am pleased that it has been given time in the main Chamber, where it should be, that we are prioritising mental health and that we are discussing the important issue of body image.