Children’s Mental Health Problems Not Solely Due to Materialism

George Monbiot’s argument for understanding the increase in child mental-health problems within a context of social mobility bears further examination. While his venturing “Willy Loman syndrome” as a root cause of what he rightly calls a social catastrophe is engaging and partially successful, it can’t account for many of the phenomena described in the British Medical Association’s report to which he refers.

Yes, mental illness, behavioural problems and conduct disorders are linked to poverty, and no one would deny the need to lift children out of poverty. But, as Monbiot himself points out, child poverty is falling in Britain without a corresponding downward turn in mental-health problems.

It is undeniable that young people’s expectations in a fast-moving culture of celebrity icons set them up for disappointment – but it is difficult to believe that life events such as the failure to obtain consumer goods promised to girls in consumer magazines can offer an explanation for the huge increases in depression, anxiety and self-harm.

Lord Layard’s work on happiness is gaining an increasing foothold in government circles for very good reasons. Underlying his theories about the need to measure wellbeing and happiness when charting the economic progress of a nation is an important but daunting concept. He is telling us that traditional economic measures of progress can no longer help the wealthiest nations to develop – or protect them against self-destruction.

Humans are complex creatures. Once a nation has developed beyond the need to eradicate absolute material poverty, the theory of diminishing marginal returns is bound to kick in. And it kicks hard in humans. The push for individual material gain in nations such as ours ultimately threatens mental wellbeing because it fails to make room for the basic tenets of mental health. We need to love, to form and maintain productive social and family relationships. We need to work for more than money – a sense of belonging and contribution to a wider society is crucial to our sense of self.

Many of the basics of good physical health are also crucial. It is not a coincidence that these have suffered most due to our economic developments in the last 50 years. We need regular vigorous exercise to maintain good mental health. While young people watch TV, they are not only developing unrealistic aspirations of celebrity, they are also exercising less than ever.

Finally, the introduction of convenience foods, trans fats and meats that have dramatically altered in nutritional value is hugely important. The brain relies on good nutrition.

The social catastrophe Monbiot seeks to define is complex, and calls for an immense rethink of how we measure progress. The payoff of a failure to understand the concept of public mental health and apply it to our public policy will be an enormous economic and social burden, carried by countless future generations.

Andrew McCulloch is chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation