Deborah Orr: If children are retreating into a simple, violent, two-dimensional world, we should be alarmed

It becomes apparent that the mental health of the nation is not good at all
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The Independent Online

When the British Medical Association published a report into adolescent mental health last week, and pronounced that psychiatric disorders in children were one in 10 and rising, it prompted a flurry of responses. High on the agenda has been the importance of diet, which was given a large degree of emphasis in the report.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that diet plays a critical role in healthy development. My own children are wearily familiar with my imprecations that they consume "five a day", and almost as evangelical as their parents about the crucial importance of taking their daily dose of fish oil supplements. Even so, I've been struck by the degree to which the debate has been dominated by such considerations.

Good diet is quite definitely hugely important. But we're kidding ourselves if we start believing it's a magic bullet. The link between decent diets for children and decent parenting is pretty obvious, of course. The importance of a secure upbringing was apparent in the report as well, not least because it highlighted strongly the higher prevalence of mental health problems in "looked after" children (as the jargon now describes children in care). Again, parenting issues have been seized upon, especially by the popular press, as being at the heart of the problem. In many respects, this is a statement so obvious that it's practically meaningless.

The real thrust of the report, though, has been seized upon less ardently, perhaps because it points to a rather more complex set of sociological problems than a change of diet or a self-congratulatory lecture about positive parenting could have much impact on. Above all, the report spelled out the vulnerability of children from deprived backgrounds, not just children in the care of local authorities, but refugee and asylum-seeker children, and young offenders.

The murder of Alex Mulumba, for example, has been under investigation during the same period as the report has been in the public domain. Yet, far from being analysed with any reference to the report, the 15-year-old's death has been reported with familiar levels of victim-blaming dark propaganda.

Alex Mulumba was momentarily a poster boy for The Scourge Of Knife Crime. His father, Kamondo, summoned to hospital with the dire news that his son had been stabbed, was so stricken by Alex's condition that he released a photograph of him prone on his deathbed. He told the media his son had been out celebrating the end of his GCSE exams, and intended to study electrical engineering at college. "He was a god boy," said his father, "a lovely boy with lots of friends." The man plainly believed that his son was the random victim of a culture he had read about in the tabloids and protected his boy from. To add to the poor man's grief, he was quickly disabused of this fond delusion.

A chilling photograph of his son quickly came to light, showing him hooded, masked, holding a shotgun and calling himself by his gang name, Tiny Alien. This, it transpired, had been found on the website run by the boy's street-gang, the Man Dem Crew, which had links to older men in established criminal gangs. Alex, unbeknownst to his father, was on bail charged with crimes involving robbery, theft and violence. Two other gang members had already been jailed after bragging on the website about their many crimes.

Those latter details have become horribly familiar. Again and again, Britain has marvelled at how deeply removed from the suffering of their victims violent young people at the far edge of lawless violence can be. This unfathomable failure of empathy was shockingly apparent in the murder of Mary-Ann Leneghan, for example, when her killers postured disgustingly when their sentence was passed, or in the killing of David Morley, the bar manager who was filmed as he was kicked to death. It is apparent, too, in the killings we hear of that are committed over trivial matters.

Meanwhile, Kamondo Mulumba, who sought asylum here from war-torn Zaire in 1991, has become a familiar stereotype - the parent who thinks his little monster is a little angel. I don't know what sort of parent he was or is - he has five other children with a wife he describes as "depressed" - but I do know that he was quite clearly utterly unaware of his son's criminal associations. This may simply be because of "bad parenting" (or just Zaire civil war parenting transferred to a London sink estate) or "bad diet". But it might also be because his son was as convincing in his role as a good son as he was in his role as a schoolboy gangster.

I'm not quite suggesting that Alex Mulumba might have been suffering from what used to be called multiple personality disorder, and is now called dissociative personality disorder. But I'm convinced that the untouchable affectlessness that is reported among many of the young men on society's margins - and some of the young women - might be an indication that they may be suffering from a range of related dissociative disorders.

The concept of dissociation is easy to grasp as being on a continuum reflecting a range of experiences from those which are quite normal: daydreaming, "switching off", to those which are extreme: blacking out, or feeling utterly alienated from one's own physical actions. It's worth noting that a number of the other activities that worry parents, such as playing video games or watching music videos for hours, are well-known to trigger "zoned-out" states. There's surely some mileage in the idea that "street culture" is dissociative, encouraging as it does a retreat into a simple, violent, two-dimensional world. Interestingly, however, it is far more common for women to be diagnosed with dissociative disorders than men. Recent research suggests that this is simply because men are far more often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. One report from a US-based advocacy organisation states that "men with dissociative disorders are most likely to be in treatment for other mental illnesses including psychopathy, or drug and alcohol abuse, or they may be incarcerated".

The great pity of this is that unless they are extreme, dissociative disorders can be treated successfully with therapy, which is a service that the BMA report urges should be hugely expanded. The Government, as the report acknowledges, is moving in the right direction on this. But progress has so far been slow, and whether our society can afford the time is debatable.

Type the name Alex Mulumba into an internet search engine and it becomes quickly apparent that there are those who seek to fan resentment and racism by portraying Alex Mulumba not as a traumatised child but as an adult symbol of all that's wrong with embracing the scary world outside Britain. And it becomes apparent that the mental health of the nation is not good at all.