Last night I heard a radio programme, All in the Mind on Radio 4, which was asking: is there an 'epidemic' of mental ill health among young people? And if so, why? The general conclusion confirmed my impressions gathered from extensive work with young people, teachers and artsworkers: though nothing so subjective can be 'proven', the pressures on young people at present seem to be qualitatively different from those faced by previous generations. And they need more support than is currently available. The fact is that a third of young people seeking mental health treatment are turned away - and that some parents I have met 'pray' that their child will have a 'crisis' so that they can get access to treatment. With the current cuts to all 'early intervention' services, and further rounds planned, it seems we can't expect any change to that situation. (A sort of slow-burning anger is becoming the undertone to most of what I speak and write these days, surely a corrosive state of mind for me too!)
So what's the answer? There are increasing calls for schools and universities to start viewing students' mental health as part of their responsibility. These are resisted by many as 'not really their job'. I think the interesting question here is, what can schools and colleges in fact do and what can they not? How can they start to build a culture of communication and mutual support around mental health? And - well I would say this wouldn't I - how can they provide opportunities for young people to explore alternative narratives, different versions of themselves and different ways of forming supportive, collaborative communities? A lot of what is being called 'mental ill health' may in fact be a chronic condition of our advanced capitalist society. The stories of economic competition, commodification, academic pressure, social judgement, physical perfection are being heard clearly enough. How can schools and colleges help young people to take the world with a pinch (or a barrel) of salt?
I have been asked to present a little bit of something at 'Everybody's Business', an upcoming conference about mental health services for young people in York on 25th November. Unlike most conferences it has a specific outcome in mind - to inform the council's Health and Wellbeing Committee and how they shape their future strategy. It will bring together people from all the city's higher education providers, with health professionals and local authority decision makers, to start to build a sense of common cause around some of the questions around young people's mental health.
I am delighted that I will be speaking/performing with Imogen Godwin, a young writer and storyteller who is very eloquent on the subject of the CAMHS system. We will show a bit of our show, Wormwood in the Garden, and talk about the value of artistic collaboration in helping young people develop and articulate their own perspectives on their wellbeing.
You can book for the conference here.