At the chalkface: Mental health

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

She also spoke about spiralling poverty and the increase of anxiety, self-harm, anorexia, bulimia, serious depression and suicide. School is driving more pupils mad. She had to go.

Natasha Devon, “mental health champion” for schools, was axed after criticising the government’s policies. “A rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health,” she said. The DfE denied that the sacking was connected to this or that she was being silenced.

She just wouldn’t work again in that role and would be henceforth gagged – apart from that it is as before.

She also spoke about spiralling poverty and the increase of anxiety, self-harm, anorexia, bulimia, serious depression and suicide. School is driving more pupils mad. She had to go.

Michael Rosen too has lamented the stress and worse that the dismal farce of SATs can bring. Death by absurd grammar. If you don’t get the right number of coordinating conjunctions, similes, conditionals and fronted adverbials in a sentence you’re finished.

Mainstream schools, especially academies, are excommunicating children who are “poor quality”, “difficult”, or desperate, because they damage the targets culture. Comprehensives and Special schools must pick them up. They are being flooded by children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. These can be very challenging, way beyond “naughty”. We pathologise some of them, medicalise childhood or they run “feral” or “mad” in the streets.

Now I don’t know the root causes of all this. Who does? The disappearing anchors of community? Savage competition? Grotesque inequality? Just despair? Whatever. The problem is surely even deeper. We are merely tinkering with dark forces. I am tempted to go back to when I was training to be a teacher, to the psycho-analyst, RD Laing.

“A child born today in the United Kingdom stands a 10 times greater chance of being admitted to a mental hospital than to a university. Perhaps it is our way of educating them that is driving them mad,” he wrote in The Politics of Experience in 1967. Heady stuff, a bit existential, epistemological, extreme, embarrassing even. We don’t do this heavy Freudian stuff these days. And, anyway, aren’t we sending more to university these days? Yes, but more go “mad”. So we give them anti-anxiety pills, anti-depression drugs. We accommodate the nightmare. Laing would have been not have been surprised. Nor would other 60s thinkers like Michel Foucault, Paul Goodman, John Holt, who go way beyond the parameters of modern, anaemic debate. Something is very wrong.

Perhaps we should listen to Natasha Devon – and to those “mad” gurus. “Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiosity, dreaminess easily,” writes Laing. You have to work on it.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city teacher.


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