Body Image and Mental Health

Part of Exiting the European Union (Transport) – in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Public Health) 3:33 pm, 23rd July 2019

I think we can all agree that this been an eye-opening and interesting debate, and I start by thanking all the hon. Members present for making such excellent, personal and candid speeches. I also want to continue the theme of hoping that the Minister will still be in her position at the end of the day, because, as everyone has said, she really takes on board the cross-party consensus on many such issues, doing so with regard to the matter rather than the politics. On these things, there is always more we agree on than we disagree on. Having reinforced her embarrassment, I will now move on.

Today we have heard about the impact that negative body image can have on people’s mental health, and I will particularly address the mental health of children and young people. It is clear that more needs to be done to promote healthy body image, which should start as early as possible.

I pay tribute to the Mental Health Foundation for its comprehensive research and campaigning on this topic. It has found that even children under the age of six have reportedly felt dissatisfied with their bodies, so promoting a healthy body image from an early age is therefore a crucial step. It is obvious from what we have heard today that more needs to be done to ensure that happens.

It is heartbreaking to hear that more than half of children and young people have been bullied because of their appearance, and that one third of teenagers say they have felt shame because of their body image. The Children’s Society has found that children’s happiness with how they look has not improved since the mid-1990s, and young people themselves say that body image is their third biggest area of concern in life, after their education and employment prospects. Why, then, are we failing to address poor body image when it is such a crucial issue?

It is clear that educating young people about their bodies is an important step in improving their body confidence, so do the Government have plans to ensure that schools cover body image concerns as part of the introduction of compulsory relationships and sex education in 2020? More needs to be done to promote healthy body image and good mental health among our young people.

Classroom-based teaching should not only extend to teaching children about their bodies; more needs to be done to ensure that children understand how to use social media safely, understand how to improve their self-esteem and understand their emotions. Can the Minister outline how the Department for Education is tackling these issues in schools? I know the Minister is here representing the Department of Health and Social Care, but the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, the Children’s Minister, was here a moment ago, and they should be in close contact on this.

Children who are concerned about their body are less likely to take part in physical activity. We can all remember our school days, and I am sure we were all concerned about that. This is concerning when we know the health benefits of physical activity, so promoting positive body image can have benefits for physical health, as well as for mental health.

The mental health consequences of poor body image can be severe. Although having body image concerns is not a mental health problem in itself, having such concerns can be a risk factor for mental health problems. Mental health support should start where children need it, which is in school. Can the Minister tell the House what interim funding has been offered to schools to provide mental health support, given that the Green Paper’s proposed support package will not be rolled out nationally until 2023? Schools really cannot wait another four years for this support because, as we know, they are already struggling with their current budgets.

Where mental health problems develop, early intervention and support from mental health services is crucial. Too many young people who are not able to access the mental health support they need from child and adolescent mental health services are left waiting for treatment on waiting lists for far too long or are turned down for help because their condition is deemed to be not bad enough. The best way to stop our young people developing eating disorders is to make sure they do not have to wait until they have an eating disorder and until they are bad enough to get that help. For children and young people who need support from CAMHS, there needs to be specific support to help them with body image concerns. What are the Government doing to ensure that support is in place?

According to a survey of family doctors, nearly all GPs worry that young people with mental health problems will come to harm because of difficulties in accessing treatment on the NHS, which should absolutely not be the case, and I know the Minister agrees. As was said at Health questions earlier, it is time to ring-fence funding for children’s mental health budgets to ensure that mental health services for children are properly funded.

I have spoken mostly about the impact on children and young people, because it is vital that the causes of poor body image are addressed early to ensure that children and young people think positively about their bodies and therefore go on to think positively about their bodies as adults. People with long-term conditions, such as cancer, and new mums can also have particular body image pressures and concerns, so it is important that as well as mental health services, other health services are there to support people when that is required. In some other cases, the issue is not due to mental health but can become a mental health issue if the matter is not addressed earlier.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, cognitive behavioural therapy—CBT—and other talking therapies can help people who are struggling with body image concerns, but we know that access to talking therapies can be a bit of a postcode lottery. Will the Minister explain how the Government plan to try to end that postcode lottery?

It is worrying to hear about body image concerns among lesbian, gay and bisexual people. One third of adults who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual have reported experiencing suicidal feelings in relation to their body image. It is therefore important that lesbian, gay and bisexual people have access to support that is tailored to them. Has the Minister taken steps to ensure that lesbian, gay and bisexual people have access to appropriate mental health support?

As we know, trans body image is often linked to a specific condition called body dysmorphia, which means it is not included in the statistics I just mentioned. Trans people face specific challenges in accessing mental health support, so it is vital that the Government ensure that mental health support tailored to trans people is available throughout the country. Will the Minister explain what steps the Government are taking to provide mental health services for trans people in this regard?

We have heard today about the profound impact that social media, celebrity culture and advertising can have on young people and adults and their views of their bodies. Too often, the content shared on social media is having a negative impact on mental health. That is why it is vital that more is done to protect children and young people and vulnerable people online, including from harmful images that can affect their body image. Far too often, social media companies turn a blind eye to harmful content. More really does need to be done to stop such content appearing online. I commend my right hon. Friend Mr Jones for mentioning Facebook, as well as a former Member of this place and what he might be able to do in that regard.

I am reminded of all those pro-ana websites. I never even used to know what pro-ana meant—I did not realise it was even a thing—but when I see some of those websites and some of those YouTube stars, and the sort of body image that they present as being obtainable and the norm, I think more really should be done to take those images down. I also include in all that the fact that the movie world, Hollywood, TV and Netflix have a responsibility to promote a healthy body image when they cast their shows and movies. I will not name any particular show, movie or artist, but I have in mind a particular example of casting that really does, in my opinion, promote a very wrong body image. That does cause harm. The harms caused online need to be seen and treated as public health concerns, which, as shadow public health Minister, I am passionate about.

Labour is calling for a regulator with teeth that can take serious action against social media companies and for an enforceable duty of care to deal with the harms, hate and fake images that many online companies allow to flourish on their platforms.

The Government heeded Labour’s call and announced a regulator in the “Online Harms” White Paper, which is great, so it is now imperative for a regulator to be put in place as soon as possible. Will the Minister let the House know when that regulator might be expected? The process might take many months, and meanwhile children, young people and vulnerable adults are left at risk of severe online harms. The Government need to move faster and to go further, and perhaps we might see that under the new Administration—who knows—but it is clear from this debate that more needs to be done to tackle harmful content and body stigma, and to provide appropriate mental health support for everyone who needs it. Following this debate, as we have all said, I hope that the Minister will still be in her job and able to tackle this.