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Natasha Devon, the former Department for Education (DfE) mental health champion who found her position abolished after criticising the government regarding its testing policies and their effect on pupils mental health, has strongly attacked the government.
Devon has said that Britain’s child mental health crisis is far worse than most people realise, and we risk ‘medicalising childhood‘ through botched attempts to address the problem. She said: ‘We need to ask ourselves what is causing mental health problems in the first place, because it’s my belief that many of these struggles could be avoided if we get our approach right. And if we don’t, we’re giving away with one hand and taking away with the other.’ She further said: ‘If a child is being bullied and they have the symptoms of depression because they are being bullied, what they need is for the bullying to stop. They need to feel safe again. They don’t necessarily need antidepressants or therapy.’
Devon said that the pressures of modern life mean that young people are under more pressures than ever before. She said: ‘Being a young person today is harder than it’s ever been. Time and time again over recent years young people, and the people who teach them, have spoken out about how rigorous a culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health.’ She said that excessive assessment from a young age and student debt were factors which heightened anxiety levels, saying: ‘At one end of the scale we’ve got four-year-olds being tested; at the other end of the scale we’ve got teenagers leaving school and facing the prospect of leaving university with record amounts of debt. Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.’
The government’s response to the criticism of the current testing regime has been to axe the position of mental health champion. A DfE spokeswoman said that an independent NHS task force report had ‘recommended that a cross-government mental health champion be created, for this reason we have had to reconsider the department’s own role.’ She added that Devon’s position was being axed to avoid ‘confusion’.
The spokeswoman then poured praise on Devon, saying: ‘Natasha has done a great job of helping us to raise the profile of young people’s mental health since her appointment last year. We have asked Natasha and others who have been involved in our work to empower schools and young people to promote good mental health to continue to work with us as we prepare to launch our activity last year.’
The CEO of Young Minds (who campaigns on mental health issues for young people), Sarah Brennan said: ‘We are very surprised and sad that Natasha’s role as mental health champion has ended. She has done a superb job of drawing attention to the crucial importance of mental health and well-being in schools.’ Devon said: ‘When I first took the role, I said to the department what I want to do is bring the concerns of young people and the people who teach them to government level. So it’s not actually that’s being silenced, it’s the young people and teachers. I think the government knows that young people don’t vote, or if they do, are very unlikely to vote Tory; and they have historically ignored their needs and the price paid now is that we have seen a crisis in their mental health.’
Devon who was made an MBE in 2015, said that she had not been paid for the role, as she wanted to remain independent and objective. She warned the new, paid mental health champion could ‘be paid effectively to toe the partly line’. She said she hoped the new champion would be a ‘positive force for good’, but she was ‘sceptical’.
She commented that when child and adolescent mental health services are cut, teachers support young people because there is nowhere to refer them to, and that following extensive cuts to the police service, teachers are also being handed the responsibility for antisocial behaviour in their communities. She said: ‘It’s becoming clear that the government sees schools as cheap alternative to vital public sector services it can’t be asked to fund anymore.’ She said: ‘Don’t worry, teachers can do that. Why not? It’s not like they have anything else to do; might as well be the Tory party slogan.’
Gordon Collins writes a fortnightly newsletter for schools, colleges, universities and other stakeholders working with young people aged 14–24.
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