The public cries of “crisis” are in the air, especially when it comes to child/teen mental health in the schools. Britain’s government-appointed Mental Health Champion, Natasha Devon, rang the latest alarm bell in The Telegram (April 29, 2016) claiming that the “child mental health crisis is spinning out of control.” In issuing her “Mental Health Manifesto” for Britain’s schoolchildren, Devon frequently cites a scary figure to buttress her public claims — the statistic that “rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.”
Not everyone accepts her public pronouncements at face value — and a few are looking more deeply into the nature, definition, and prevalence of the so-called “child public health crisis.” Devon’s further claim that it constitutes an “epidemic” has sparked even more skepticism. Is this the proverbial twenty-first century equivalent of “crying wolf” or just a manifestation of our contemporary tendency to ‘pathologize’ social-psychological trends?
One of Canada’s leading teen mental health experts, Dr. Stan Kutcher, devotes his life to educating teachers, students and families about mental health disorders, but he is very skeptical about overblown claims. When asked about the purported “crisis” at St. Francis Xavier University a few weeks ago, he startled a local newspaper reporter with this statement: “there is no mental health crisis for crying out loud.”
Dr. Kutcher was not minimizing the severity of the problem, but rather questioning the veracity of some of the recent public claims. “We have the same proportion of mental illness in our society now that we had 40, 50, 60 years ago,” he explained. “There is no epidemic of illness, there is better recognition of illness, which is good but what we’re seeing now is an epidemic of ‘I think I have a mental disorder when I’m just really feeling unhappy,’ and that is a direct reflection of poor mental health literacy.”
Like many health professionals, Dr. Kutcher sees the popular media as contributing to the public misunderstanding about the nature and prevalence of mental disorders. He’s critical of those who exaggerate the “crisis” and equally concerned about others too quick to dismiss
it as a ‘teenage fad.’“Now the depression happens in adolescents and depression is a serious disease and if you have depression you need the proper treatment for depression, but feeling unhappy, that’s not depression,” he said.“So I think a lot of people have become confused with all the talk about mental health and mental illness without the literacy to understand what they’re talking about.”
Stress and distress is not all bad, according to Kutcher. “People do have daily distress, that is normal, ubiquitous, necessary and good for you,” he said.“And all of us are going to have a mental health problem like the loss of a loved one, moving to a new city, losing your job – those are substantive challenges in our lives and we need extra help for that. But those two things aren’t mental illnesses and they don’t need to be medicalized, they don’t need medications, they don’t need specialized psychotherapy, they don’t need access to the mental health care system.They can be dealt with, the first one, mental distress, by yourself with your friends. The second one with special support, sometimes counselors, sometimes your clergy, whoever.”
As the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health at Dalhousie University Medical School, Kutcher’s assessment carries considerable weight and he makes the critical distinctions that the popular media tend to completely miss: “Mental illnesses are different; they need specialized treatment like a treatment for any illness. But one of the challenges we have is that socially we’re tending to confuse mental distress and mental health problems with mental illness. So, because I feel unhappy today I feel like I should have therapy, because I take umbrage at what you said to me I have an anxiety disorder, that’s not true at all.”
Dr. Kutcher seems to dispute the whole approach taken by Britain’s Mental Health czarina and ‘body health’ counsellor, Natasha Devon. While Devon and her Self-Esteem Team (SET) target standardized tests and exams as “stress-inducers,” Kutcher and other specialists, including Dr. Michael Ungar, see value in competitive activities in developing “resilience” in teens. Dr. Kutcher puts it this way: “We have to be very careful to differentiate the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in real life which we have to learn to deal with and overcome, and for which we don’t need treatment, and those things which actually require treatment.”
Mental health disorders are serious and providing more accessible, effective and sustainable services should be a top public policy priority, inside and outside of schools. “Teenage angst,” as Ella Whelan recently pointed out, “is not a serious mental health issue.” It is important to carefully consider all public claims for their veracity and to be skeptical of mental health charities seeking to “normalize mental illness.” We must also recognize that “not all of the kids are all right.” Nor are mental health services accessible or available when and where they are needed in and around the schools. Therein lies the real problem.
What ‘s driving the public call to address the “child mental health crisis” in schools? Are school authorities and educators equipped to make the critical distinction between normal ‘mental health stresses’ and serious disorders requiring treatment? Is there a danger that those ringing the alarm bells are ‘pathologizing’ teenage anxieties and stress? Is it possible to identify and support those in serious personal crisis while recognizing that competition and stress develops ‘resilience’ and is part of healthy preparation for life?