On Monday I went to a very interesting discussion about mental health issues, specifically about how they concern boys and men (it was held at City of London School where my son goes). It was given by Natasha Devon MBE who was the government’s ‘tsar’ for mental health.
I say was because in the end she had the job for less than a year before being sacked in May 2016 for speaking her mind about government testing in schools.
Basically she thinks there’s too much of it and it is causing untold stress on the children. Having spent some time as an exam invigilator in schools, and seeing what the kids have to go through, I can kind of agree.
After all in what other situation that children are likely to encounter in their lives, will they have all their possessions taken away from them, including their sacred mobile phones, and asked to work in silence while writing on pieces of paper for two hours?
That said, I haven’t really come up with a more practical solution for testing people’s abilities before leaving school or going to university.
However, given that testing isn’t going to end any time soon, what can we do to practically improve our children’s mental health? The way Devon sees it there are three main areas to focus on.
These are improving critical thinking, developing healthy coping mechanisms and talking more! Children are often poor at all three it seems and boys are much more reluctant than girls to talk about their problems, either with each other or with an adult.
Speaking specifically about access to online porn, Devon said there is really no point in trying to prevent access. “If they want to find it they will,” she said. However the key with all online content is “to encourage them to think critically and give them the necessary armour so they don’t simply accept ideas.”
She was particularly critical of adverts, such the Lynx Angels advert of a few years back, complete with Sexy Boy soundtrack, which portrays women as these ethereal sirens (personally I think she may be missing the tongue-in-cheek humour, but then again maybe teenage boys who watch it are too!)
Men, she believes, are usually encouraged by media to confirm to a traditional heterosexual stereotype: “Rich, buff and stoic are all seen as masculine values…we need to redefine what strength is and show that men can be masculine and have feelings too.”
Undoubtedly the prevalence of social media hasn’t helped teenagers when it comes to self-esteem issues either. Rather than seeing only what our peers are up to, as previous generations had to, we’re now living in a world where we are presented with an online version of what everyone in the world is up to which may – or frequently may not – match reality.
Extreme levels of stress, coupled with low self esteem may result in bullying or self-harm too, typically seen as children cutting themselves. However increasingly Devon claims that boys are engaging in fights they know they are going to lose just to hurt themselves.
Even more worryingly over 80 per cent of suicides are male. Devon highlighted a case of a a young graduate friend, James Mabbett, who killed himself at the age of 24 without any warning. Described as the life and soul of the party, and oozing charisma from every pore, he simply hanged himself one evening in his hotel room.
It’s a terrible story, but Devon believes a lot more can be done to prevent needless deaths like this. One way is to keep children’s stress levels in check is by encouraging them to develop healthy, rather than unhealthy, coping mechanisms.
So instead of turning to alcohol or self harm, we need them to find an outlet that isn’t related to the things that cause them stress. That may be relaxation or meditation although is perhaps more likely to be helping them be creative in music, art or drama.
Finally, and it’s been said many times before, boys and men need to talk more! However, Devon believes this needs to be in environments where men feel comfortable, perhaps where they don’t need to make eye contact with one another, she suggests. For example, it could be in the the gym or taking part in sport, but almost certainly isn’t in a female counsellor’s office!
In one example she gives she talks about how a boy had one of the best conversations with his father while the two of them were painting a wall together! Whatever works.
Natasha Devon runs Self Esteem Team, an organisation that works with teens on mental health, body image and self-esteem. She can also be found on Twitter @NatashaDevonMBE