The reality is that the pressures, expectations, inequalities and divisions we experience throughout life inform how we view ourselves and our mental well-being. As we search for identity, meaning and value, we are taught that these can be found in adhering to social standards: be it achieving the perfect body or owning the latest iphone. The more we fall short of these, the more we suffer.
Of course, part of the problem is individualism itself and the alienation this leads to. As George Mombiot highlights, loneliness is at the root of many of our health and mental health problems. And research suggests that societies with strong and trusting communities tend to be happier.
Addressing the mental health crisis, therefore, needs to include actively developing social narratives which foreground values of empathy and community, providing greater possibility for identities, relationships and communities that support positive mental health and well-being. Schools seem like a good place to start...
Yes, we need investment in services. But there must be a remorseless focus on what drives children to mental distress in the first place. Overcrowded and poor housing. Poor diet. Lack of exercise. Family conflict. The stresses of poverty, from internalised shame to being conscious of not having the same opportunities as other children. Consumer capitalism, which judges and defines children by what trainers they wear. An educational culture obsessed with exams. If we want a society that promotes happiness and wellbeing among children, these are all problems that have to be addressed. How tragic, then, that life is being made harder for children by both government policy and ever harsher attitudes and expectations. The children will suffer for it, and so will our country’s future.