One child in five suffers mental stress

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The Independent Online
PRESSURES ON children to succeed and mollycoddling by parents who fear for their safety are turning out a young generation that is emotionally illiterate and at an increased risk of mental breakdown, a report claimed yesterday.

One in five people aged four to twenty is estimated to suffer from problems, ranging from bed-wetting to anorexia, which significantly disrupt their lives.

The toll of mental ill health has been rising in all developed countries since the Second World War and neglect of children's emotional needs in the modern world is to blame, according to the report, by the Mental Health Foundation.

In a three-year study, The Big Picture, published yesterday, which examined more than 1,000 pieces of evidence, the foundation concludes that children are failing to thrive emotionally, are becoming less resilient and less able to cope with the ups and downs of life.

It says children are represented as "evil demons" or as "dolls and angels" but not as humans, and that an adult-centred society treats them as "design- er accessories or pampered pets". The pressures on them to achieve are enormous but too little is done to help them to build the resilience they need to cope when things go wrong. "Huge sums [are invested] in our children's intellectual abilities and there can be no reason for not investing in their mental health and emotional intelligence," the report says.

Although welcoming recent government initiatives on children and the family the report warns that they "still pussyfoot around the fundamental fact that the root cause of so much dysfunction in individuals, in families, in schools, and in society as a whole is poor mental and emotional health."

June McKerrow, director of the foundation, said risk-taking by children was an essential part of growing up, but the over-regimented lives imposed by worried parents had reduced their opportunities to learn from their mistakes.

"Children must be able to plan and take control, they must be allowed to try things and be free to experiment so that they develop their own abilities to solve problems.

"We know some things will go wrong and others will go right and then they can choose where to place their energies."

Ms McKerrow said many social problems, such as unemployment, were beyond the power of governments to solve and people had to be emotionally prepared to cope with the consequences by extending their personal re-sources and interests.

Schools played a key role but there was "huge concern" about the narrowness of the National Curriculum. For primary school children, playing with their peers was an important part of their development, but this is under threat, she said.

"Teachers say they have had to cut the playtime of five-year- olds by up to half and drop singing lessons in order to make more time for arithmetic. There is no time to build emotional intelligence - it is all focused on the three Rs."

By changing social attitudes to children, many of the risks to their mental health could be reduced. But for those children who succumbed to the pressures and showed signs of failing to progress at school or found it difficult to make friends, early intervention was needed in the form of treatment, counselling, peer support or specific initiatives such as anti-bullying programmes.

"A fundamental shift in society is needed to accept that `mental' health can be a positive as well as a negative state," Ms McKerrow said.

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