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The Government Has Made It Difficult For Young People To Flourish, Says DfE's Mental Health Champion

"How can children and young people be expected to flourish in these circumstances?" Natasha Devon said.

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The Department for Education's mental health "champion" has criticised the government for failing to acknowledge the role social inequality plays in the issues faced by young people with mental health problems.

In a blog for TES on Monday, Natasha Devon accused the government of engineering a social climate that has made it "difficult for any young person to enjoy optimal mental health".

Devon described the NHS as being "on its knees", and said "decent healthcare has become the privilege of those who dwell in the right postcode".

She claimed that both the current government and the coalition before it had caused "spiralling poverty", leading to an increased number of people in the UK relying on food banks – at least 1 million in 2015.

She also said parents were struggling to make ends meet, and that as a result they are spending less quality time with their families and schools are being relied on to provide children with breakfast. She wrote:

How can children and young people be expected to flourish in these circumstances?

Is it any wonder that anxiety disorder is bucking the one in 10 trend, increasing at a dramatic rate in under 21s? Or that hospitalisations for self-harm have doubled in the past three years?

We are applying the factor 50, but what is the government doing to turn down the heat?

Devon's blog was written following the MindEd conference on 18 March at Cambridge University, at which various mental health experts were invited to discuss ways young people with mental health problems could be helped via the education system.

Devon, who was invited to chair a panel on young people's perspectives, said the room was "full of highly educated, privileged, middle-aged white men in suits" who were more interested in mental-health literacy than addressing the issue.

At one point a question was asked about how young people are expected to cope in the current social climate, and Alistair Burt, the minister for community and social care, who was also on the panel, implied that "children need pressure to thrive, and that life is tough", she said.

The Department of Health challenged this interpretation of Burt's remarks, saying instead the minister was concerned with helping to teach children how to cope with stress and pressure.

Devon told BuzzFeed News there was also a professor who spoke about the dangers of "medicalising childhood" and why children shouldn't be protected from stress, "because stress can be good for you".

"Technically there was actually nothing wrong with what he was saying," she said. "But it was in the context of a day where we had a minister say 'life is tough' and that children should suck it up, basically. So that, for me, became really upsetting."

She said: "While I completely support teaching children about emotions and how their brain works, that's not going to solve a lot of the root causes of the problems young people face."

For the past decade, Devon has been going into UK schools to help young people on issues related to mental health and body image. Before then, she said, she suffered from bulimia and depression, and so struggled to reach her full potential.

"I left school to go to university aged 18 with three A-grade A-levels, and all the potential in the world. But by the age of 25 I had no job, no money, and was still living with my parents because I had a mental illness. ... It occurred to me that perhaps school hadn't taught me everything I needed to know in order to be successful and happy."

Although Devon believes the government is taking "a lot of positive steps", she wants people to understand that it "goes beyond education".

"This is about equality, and the government taking a united approach to make life better for young people," she said.

Asked about Devon's remarks, a spokesman for the Department for Education told BuzzFeed News there was "not really anything to say from our end".

He said Devon "remains the department's mental health champion, but she's independent of government and free to say what she wants".

The Department of Health declined to comment.

Fiona Rutherford is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Fiona Rutherford at fiona.rutherford@buzzfeed.com.

James Ball is a special correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. PGP: here

Contact James Ball at James.Ball@buzzfeed.com.

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