Carol Sarler: Hey, counsellor... Leave those kids alone

Unhappiness has a place in all our lives, so trying to 'treat' children who suffer from it denies them an important part of growing up
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The Independent Online

One in 10 children, between the tenderly turbulent ages of 10 and 15, is unhappy. At least, that is the conclusion reached by the Children's Society and seized upon with relish by the headline writers of the week, for whom the startling statistic served usefully to polish up their old chestnuts. See! That's what you get for... (fill in as you please, but favourites here included broken marriage, early sexualisation and/or lousy schooling).

It appeared to bother nobody that, given the methodology of its survey, the Children's Society's report left itself wide open to wholly selective interpretation. It handed out questionnaires to 7,000 children, carefully picked to be representative by sex, class and age across the five years. The chosen ones then, anonymously, ticked the boxes against 120 questions, in the fashion of strongly-agrees to don't-knows; it was a one-off exercise during a single, frozen hour in their lives. Which, far from proving that one in 10 children is chronically unhappy, just as easily suggests that a tenth of all children on one day – or all children on one day in every 10 – will find something to gripe about, especially if the wording of the questions inspire targets for grievance.

Furthermore, given that the stated causes of the unhappiness included such routine worries as schoolwork (47 per cent) – which rises at exam time to 58 per cent – being bored, feeling ugly, disliking their neighbourhood, not getting enough pocket money or having parents "who won't let you do stuff", the fact that only one in 10 ticked the top misery boxes sounds, frankly, almost too good to be true.

No matter. The charity's chief executive, Bob Reitemeier, pronounced the findings "a major concern", as he considered the implication of 140,000 10- to 15-year-olds suffering from a low "well-being score" – a new phrase, perhaps, to you and me, but one which will no doubt take its place in the expanding lexicon of terms employed to deny or to eradicate unhappiness as if it were a disease. And that, I venture, actually is a major concern.

The trend for the pathologising of misery began with adults, when fears became phobias and risk assessment became paranoia; when moods, melancholia and tempers were resurrected as syndromes, and when broken hearts were elevated to clinical depression, leaving stoicism to trip over its own stiff upper lip in the race to oblivion. Drugs companies couldn't believe their luck while therapists of varying hues could count their millions, just as long as mad beat bad every time. Still, fair enough: most of the willing participants were old enough to afford their self-indulgence.

Now, however, children's gloom is similarly under attack. Their unhappiness is "diagnosed" as "sickness", with its attendant label – ADHD or dysmorphia or that great, old, misused standby, "depression" – and, of course, its "cure". Children's prescriptions for Ritalin are running at 500,000 a year and rising, while many thousands of prescriptions annually mean that Prozac is now handed out to those as young as eight.

As with adults, no doubt there are some who benefit, both from the understanding of a condition and the consequent treatment. But when such treatments become an early – let alone a first – port of call, and when an anonymous child's personally assessed, subjective declaration of unhappiness claims column inches as a "major concern", you do wonder how much the children who gain are outnumbered by those who lose.

If we deny unhappiness its rightful place in a child's life, if we concentrate only on erasing it – how, then, do we also admit to them that sometimes you cannot make it go away; you need to live with it, instead? If we pathologise wretchedness, how do we also say that when your best friend has spurned you, when you are smothered with pimples, when the exam is failed, when the parents are on your case (or, worse yet, each other's) or when the beloved kitten is found one morning, pupils fixed and dilated, you are supposed to feel unhappy? That unhappiness under such circumstances is a sane, reasonable, rational and – yes - healthy response?

The Children's Society, whose intentions are clearly well-meaning, does not say this. Its conclusions ask only that we look to modify homes, families, environment and schools so that children are more able to feel "happy and safe", that we find ways to ensure that children feel treated fairly, that we enable them to have a positive attitude and that they are able to make full use of services like family mediation and counselling.

In short, that we interfere more rather than less.

Again, let's agree that an unhappiness that stands its ground for months or even years at a time clearly begs interference; mercifully, however, and it is a mercy that children can only learn if allowed to experience it, almost all unhappiness of pubescent ilk is transient. Pimples fade, new friends appear, the next exam is better, the parents either kiss and make up or move on – and after a decent period of mourning it is enlightening to discover that there are, in fact, other kittens.

To intervene too much or too early in these hard and horrible lessons, to eschew entirely normal bouts of youthful blues in favour of a socially engineered, drug-induced, therapy-controlled Stepford illusion where everyone feels positive and fairly treated and where the sun shines all the time, is to do few favours.

Contrast has its purpose: how do you fully appreciate an up without a down? A sense of priority is also a powerful tool: my own reaction to the "major concern" that 58 per cent of children fret about exams was – shouldn't that be 98 per cent? As for the "major concern" that many children don't much fancy their neighbourhood – didn't you think, OK kid, go try Haiti?

Some children, to be fair, might take comfort and even learn something from having increased phalanxes of mediators and counsellors at their beck and call. But many more, to be candid, might learn better from a salutary reading of history: even the esteemed burghers of the United States did not declare that anybody had a right to happiness; they only had a right to pursue it. And that, really, is not the same thing at all.