The crisis in young people’s mental health needs resources for more and better services, but it should also be a wake-up call for policymakers who have neglected one of the most fundamental ways to prevent it in the first place: properly addressing children’s basic need for time and space to play
Reactions to what is widely being called ‘a crisis in young people’s mental health’ has tended to focus on the quality and availability of the services for children and teenagers who need help, and on the excessive pressures of an education system that causes such distress to young minds.
There are good reasons for such concern. NHS figures have revealed that, as at June 2016, more than 235,000 young people (aged 18 and under) were accessing specialist mental health services for such problems as anxiety, depression, self-harming and eating disorders. Research by the Guardian suggests that a large majority of those working to deliver this support believe it is inadequate; a view endorsed by Young Minds, the UK’s leading mental health charity for children.
Meanwhile, Natasha Devon, the Government’s own mental health champion for schools until the role was abolished in May 2016, has produced a harshly critical report of the DfE and its recent reforms, blaming the education system’s narrow focus on academic subjects and passing exams at the expense of PSHE, sport and the arts, for ‘actively conspiring against good paediatric and adolescent mental health’.
if children are increasingly constrained in the behaviour they most enjoy, we should not be too surprised if they develop symptoms of unhappiness.
Commenting in the Guardian this week, Owen Jones attempted to broaden the picture, calling for a ‘remorseless focus’ on what he identifies as the economic and social causes that ‘drive children to mental distress in the first place: overcrowding, poor housing, poor diet; lack of exercise, family conflict … (and) poverty’. Nowhere in this debate has one of the more obvious issues been identified, which is that if children are increasingly constrained in the behaviour they most enjoy, we should not be too surprised if they develop symptoms of unhappiness.
Psychologists from a range of perspectives have long identified play as crucial to children’s emotional wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment; key to their capacity to experience the vitality of living in the here and now; and fundamental to their developing resilience, adaptability and creativity. The Mental Health Foundation recognises as much: placing the important role of play second on a checklist for maintaining children’s good mental health. The great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith was not trying to be smart when he said ‘the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression’.
In 2008, after the UK came bottom of a Unicef league table of the wellbeing of developed nations’ children, there was a consensus – across the child policy as well as the political spectrum – that children desperately needed more time, space and opportunity to play, not virtually, on screens and social media, but with their actual friends, outside, as they have done for millennia. A 10-year strategy was launched to ‘make England the best place in the world to grow up’, with every neighbourhood made safer from traffic and containing attractive places to play within easy reach of children’s homes.
a genuinely child-friendly, playable public realm seems further away than ever.
As we all know, the Play Strategy was abandoned almost immediately the Coalition Government took office in 2010 and, in spite of growing evidence that free play in the real world is a vital component of a healthy, happy childhood, no serious attempt was made by either of David Cameron’s governments to fashion their own response to what the former Prime Minister himself described as the dearth of ‘everyday adventures’ that was making British children ‘the unhappiest in the developed world’. Indeed, children’s play services up and down the country have been decimated by austerity measures ever since; and the play strategy’s broader ambition – to create a genuinely child-friendly, playable public realm – seems further away than ever.
Theresa May says her new government will be ‘driven not by the interests of a privileged few’, but aim to create a fairer society that ‘works for everyone’. She may not have had children in mind when she said this, but as she and her chancellor begin to again redefine the role of the state, to perhaps play a greater role in the funding of public infrastructure, we should hold her to account not just for the state of the services that children need when they are distressed, but for the quality of the environments they have to grow up in. If we ‘want a society that promotes happiness and wellbeing among children’ we must start by giving them back the space where they are happiest, and the freedom to enjoy it.
 Mental Health Services Data Set (MHSDS), NHS Digital
 Personal, Social and Health Education
A condensed version of this article has appeared in today’s Guardian, on the letters page.