During the Labour Party conference last month, sixteen year old Lauren Stocks delivered a speech on the state of mental health in pupils studying for their GCSE’s. She was bold and passionate; she stirred the audience, received a standing ovation, and later the video of her speech went viral. She was certainly much braver than me aged sixteen: to stand up in front hundreds of people and communicate her views with such raw emotion is something that has to be commended. However, while her convictions are honest, she missed the point.
She described “seas of spaced out, stressed out, depressed kids” where a “good half, if not more” of them have a mental illness. This, she thought, is for the most part down to the new GCSE system, with numbered grades, tougher material, Ofsted, and of course – the government. The Tories are out to ruin children’s lives for the many political gains that will come of doing so. She made a “call to arms” on the matter. Sharpen your pitch forks and burn an effigy of Theresa May, that kind of thing.
What she completely bypassed is that the rise of mental health problems (that being a broad umbrella term for such a multitude of issues) is a global phenomenon, not just for children in formal education but across the entire demographic spectrum. Depression and anxiety in particular have seen the sharpest increase in recorded cases.
“The increase in mental health issues is a global phenomenon”
According to the World Health Organisation, between 1990 and 2013 the number of people suffering with anxiety or depression increased from 416 million to 615 million worldwide. That’s 8.1% of the world’s population burdened with one of these health issues in 2013. No doubt that figure is higher now, but perhaps most telling is the fact that many of the nations blighted with these particular illnesses are those which generally have high living standards. Those which should, theoretically, have the happiest populations. America is the ultimate example; the world’s largest economy, yet 1 in 5 adults have mental health condition. Japan faces suicide rates of 70 per day. In South Korea, a country which has fanatically adopted the western lifestyle, suicide is the leading cause of death for anyone between the ages of 10 to 30. European mental illness accounts for 20% of total health problems. This, therefore, is a pandemic and it is affecting the most developed, modernised nations first.
We all have a vague idea of the causes – social media, poor diet, 24 hour news to name a few. In the case of Lauren Stocks and her fellow 21st century classmates, I would argue it’s the internet, more specifically social media, making them miserable. No one finishes a day of staring at their phone with a sense of accomplishment. Satisfaction maybe, but certainly not happiness.
“Ultimately there need not be political polarisation over mental health”
Stocks blames the government for her generation’s unhappiness, when in fact this is something far beyond the scope of current policy. The rise of social media, social pressures, social anxiety, is not really Theresa May’s fault. Yes, more could be done by her government to mitigate the damaging impacts of modern life. But if there is to be a “call to arms” against anyone, surely it would be against the Silicon Valley giants?
Of course, Silicon Valley can’t be held responsible for every case of depression or anxiety. Nobody could have anticipated the adverse effects technology and increased interconnectivity can have on a person. Equally, the governments of developed countries cannot be demonised for failing to grasp the full scale of the problem. This is a new global issue which needs to be tackled by politicians, spanning all parties, who have a better working knowledge of modern mental health.
Ultimately there need not be political polarisation over the matter, no “call to arms” as Stocks would urge. We need to be cooperating – not just from left to right, but on an international level – to encourage more collaborative research into the detrimental impacts of the internet and the vessels through which it reaches people. We need to be helping those school pupils, as described by Lauren Stocks, to cope in the online world in which they have grown up.