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Proletarian issue 9 (December 2005)
A sick system: children’s mental illness on the rise in Britain
An ever-increasing pressure on the young to be conspicuous consumers is just one more stress that is contributing to the rising levels of mental illness among British children.

The Guardian of 25 October featured an article entitled ‘The onslaught’, which highlighted some very worrying statistics about the rise of mental illness among British children, pointing out in particular the pernicious effect of advertising and consumerism. The article claims that, “compared with 1974, today's 15 year olds are more than twice as likely to have behavioural problems and 70 percent more likely to suffer emotional troubles such as anxiety and depression. One in 10 kids between 11 and 15 has a clinically recognised mental disorder. Incidence of self-harming and youth suicide are [sic] dramatically on the rise.” (Jonathan Freedland)

According to a report by the Mental Health Foundation a few years ago, up to 20 percent of children suffer some form of mental problem, while 10 percent need professional help. (‘One child in five “mentally ill”’, BBC News Online, 3 February 1999). No doubt these figures have increased in the intervening years.

The problem is not limited to Britain. A report by in the US notes that “Since 1964, the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults has doubled. In 1996, the most recent year for which statistics are available, suicide was the third leading cause of death in 15 to 24 year olds and the fourth leading cause among 10 to 14 year olds.” (‘Brief notes on the mental health of children and adolescents’)

Pressure of consumerism

In explaining this phenomenon, the more thinking sections of the bourgeois press have been particularly drawn to the relentless barrage of advertising to which today’s children are exposed. The Guardian (op cit) cites a report claiming that today's average British child is familiar with up to 400 brand names by the time s/he reaches the age of 10. A further study claims that three year olds are, on average, more likely to be able to identify the McDonald’s logo than know their own name. Advertising aimed directly at children is an industry worth in excess of £70m per year, generating literally billions of pounds of income for companies whose goods they advertise.

In a society characterised by an ever-increasing gulf between rich and poor, and especially in an economic climate where the privileges of the better-off sections of the working class are being taken away, it is not difficult to see how the obdurate, remorseless campaign of ‘pester power’ to which kids and their parents are subjected would cause feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt and alienation in children whose parents simply cannot afford the multitude of pointless commodities on offer.

June McKerrow, director of the Mental Health Foundation, which produced the report cited above, points out: "Growing up is difficult and painful and we live in a pressurised society … The problems are getting worse. We are obsessed by material rewards, economic pressures and physical safety which all influence mental health.” The Guardian article quoted earlier continues: “Those on low incomes are hit especially hard, nagged by kids desperate for gadgets or clothes they have seen on TV but which their parents cannot afford. The NHS reports rising incidence of mental illness among the young, with anxiety and depression linked to the pressure to buy, to own, to consume. The data shows today's children are unhappier than any generation of the post-war era.”

Some research suggests that the problem may be even worse among British children than their US counterparts. The Guardian article cites a study published recently by the National Consumer Council pointing to British children recording “higher levels of dissatisfaction than American kids, wishing that they or their parents had more money to spend, sensing that too many goods were out of reach”. According to the report, "they are relentlessly targeted by companies and advertisers, operating on occasion with the ethics of the playground bully. Their vulnerabilities are sold back to them through magazines and marketing" . The report notes that children whose parents cannot afford the products that are paraded in front of them are likely to be the victims of bullying, which in turn often leads to parents compensating by buying expensive commodities for their kids with money they haven’t got. The report comments: "This is poverty twisting the knife."

Liberal bourgeoisie can see no solution

As a moderately liberal bourgeois newspaper, The Guardian is only able to offer an analysis and framework solution that is limited by an unquestioning acceptance of capitalism as the eternal system of political economy. The liberal press is at a loss when it comes to answering the question of quite why things are getting so much worse – after all, we are supposed to be better off now than we were all those decades ago, so why are our children increasingly suffering from depression?

The only solutions they can offer are related to limiting advertising and so on (or perhaps instigating a thoroughly inert ‘national debate’, the type of which has become so favoured in government circles of late). The same journals will themselves admit that such restrictions are unlikely to be very effective, as companies will find a way to get inside the heads of children, watershed or no watershed.

The fact is that capitalism worldwide is engaged in a desperate search for new markets, both at home and abroad, and there is no question of such an important market as children’s goods being left alone just for the sake of such a trifling matter (to capitalism) as the mental health of the children of the oppressed class.

Twisted society

While we are more than willing to accept that the increasingly fierce and unrelenting nature of children’s advertising is a factor in the rise of mental illness in children, we would argue that it is by no means the only factor. Bully-tactics advertising is just one small part of a system of political and economic relationships that is redundant, moribund, anachronistic, twisted and degenerate.

Modern society is characterised by enormous contradictions that the bourgeois press and education system are either unable or unwilling to explain. Despite the ostentatious wealth that can be seen on TV or on the streets of London’s more expensive suburbs, and despite the technical advances that mean that everybody on the planet could easily live a life of plenty, there is no escaping the fact that the majority of the world’s population lives in abject poverty. According to UNICEF, 13 million children under the age of five die every year due to malnutrition-related diseases, and yet mountains of unsold food are burnt constantly rather than given away, in the interests of regulating prices.

At home in Britain, conditions are getting worse for the working class. Unemployment is rising; poverty is rising. Taxes aren’t being spent on improving schools, but on blowing up Arabs. The world’s richest country can mobilise over 150,000 troops to occupy a far-away land, purportedly to establish ‘democracy’, and yet it can neither prevent nor mitigate hurricanes at home that kill hundreds and dispossess thousands. Capitalism does not provide a framework within which children, desperate to understand the world around them, can even begin to comprehend such contradictions. Hence children are so often left confused, despondent, powerless and nihilistic, increasing their disposition to mental illness and escapism through drugs (which themselves often trigger mental illness).

Unemployment and the withdrawal/reduction of social welfare are resulting in a significant growth of the section of the population that lives at or near to subsistence level. These people suffer from constant discrimination, resulting in high levels of social alienation, which is exacerbated by the ruling class’s promotion of race and sex prejudice, both of which are whipped up in the interests of dividing the working class.

It should not be a surprise to us that children are growing up sick in this sick society.

Only real solution is the struggle against capital

Ultimately, there is no magic wand, no panacea, as long as capitalism remains. The only thing we can do on a wide scale, here and now, is to offer the younger generation some hope, some motivation, some clarity, some purpose, by giving them an understanding of Marxism Leninism – that is, the science of smashing capitalism and building a socialist society in its place. Only this understanding, coupled with an active involvement in the struggle for change, can offer a viable alternative on a social scale to the despondency and nihilism of modern capitalist culture.

Freedom is, after all, the appreciation of necessity.

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