Mental Health of Children and Young Adults - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:16 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 12:16 pm, 16th May 2019

My Lords, at the end of King Lear, where, frankly, the stage is littered with bodies and not much to cheer one up has occurred, the Duke of Albany speaks to the few people who are left standing. He enjoins them thus:

“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”.

At this point, I feel that that is all I can do, because, unlike my noble friend Lady Royall who introduced this debate so extraordinarily well, and many others who are speaking, I cannot claim any expertise, whether clinical or in the work I have done in the field of child and adolescent mental health. However, I have some direct personal experience. Many people in my family, including me—I regret having to say it—have suffered from difficulties with their mental health. That includes children and one young child at the moment.

When I put my name down to speak in this debate, I knew that I wanted to speak but I was not sure how I was going to say what I wanted to say. I am still not entirely sure, so if what comes out lacks coherence or is sometimes intemperate, I apologise to the House and in particular to the Minister who has to answer this debate.

Two things have happened in the past 12 hours which have changed the way in which I thought about this subject. One was a television programme, and one was something that happened to a member of my family, a young child. The television programme was shown last night—I do not know whether anybody else saw it—and in it Nadiya Hussain talked about her own anxiety problems. The one thing that emerged from that for me more clearly than anything was that young people whose mental health problems are not diagnosed grow up into adults with mental health problems. That has already been mentioned by others, but we should never forget it. That is the risk we run: if we do not look at children’s mental health early enough, they will grow up into adults who find it much more difficult to deal with the residual problems they have.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week—many of us are sporting the badges. It may be less widely known in this House that it is also SATs week; if nobody understands what that is, they should look it up. Putting the two together, the few things I want to say are about schools—schools as healthy or, in some cases, unhealthy communities. I want to make it clear that, as I say it, I intend no disrespect whatever to teachers or their students, all of whom in their different ways are trying their best to do a good job in difficulteb;normal;j circumstances. I say that because I believe it but also because I have quite a lot of teachers in my family, so they would be very cross with me if I did not say it.

Good education must always strike a balance between discipline and freedom; core skills and creative range; learning to be part of a group and learning to be ourselves. Government policy over the past decade has done very little to help schools be healthy communities in that way. It has steadily narrowed the curriculum, reducing choice and imaginative aspiration, and focusing far too much on testing, which is why the SATS point is important. It has downgraded and undervalued arts subjects. I know that this is an old hobby-horse of mine, but I do not mind riding it out again when evidence shows the benefits of these subjects, including to mental health. More than anything else, government policy over the past decade has drained the joy out of education. If you cannot be joyful as a child, it is very hard to be mentally healthy.

I know that the Minister will say, with some good reason, that this is not her area of responsibility, but I ask her to consider that it is the responsibility of the Government as a whole to understand that young people spend a huge amount of their lives in school. Schools are communities, within which adults and young people need to find a way of co-existing such that the education the young people receive is good, enduring, healthy and sustainable. They cannot easily get that from adults who are themselves stressed, overworked and anxious. It is my belief and experience that many teachers in the system at the moment are in exactly that condition.

One way we can prevent our young people from becoming problems and needing mental health interventions is to try to ensure that their experience at school is nurturing, creative, safe and inspiring. That is what schools ought to be. I wish more of them were and I hope that the Minister will understand why I am putting this to her today.