Mental Health and Safeguarding in Childhood (1880-1920)

The approaches to safeguarding and supporting mental health and wellbeing in childhood today, are not all that different from those in the Victorian and Edwardian times.  Studying a total of 120 case files from the Children’s Society’s archives from 1880-1920, with a specific focus on language around mental health, revealed a number of similarities. The reasons for being taken into care, were and are still very much the same, namely based around the relationship between child and family, mental health of the parents and alcoholism (and surprisingly few children were taken into care due to being orphans in the Victorian/Edwardian times as is commonly thought).

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Joined up working and multi-agency teamwork is now, as it was then, problematic; practice is fragmented, partly due to lack of funding. In addition to this, the child’s ‘voice’ seems to be only sporadically acknowledged – then and now. For example, one case file from 1920 refers to a 16 year old girl asking to ‘come out of the asylum’ and ‘start afresh’; this never happened. Similar developments can still be seen now, where children have a lack of choice in what happens to them in care, with care leavers describing the care system as ‘extremely disappointing’, whilst reflecting upon this. Other similarities are a focus on the child’s behaviour, and practical and cognitive abilities (e.g. think about the current focus on ‘NEET’, not in education, training or employment), at the cost of attention for mental health and wellbeing.

This research was presented at the European Society for the History of Human Sciences conference (ESHHS) in Italy, by Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten an academic in Childhood Studies at the University of Portsmouth, drawing on her research on mental health in childhood, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The purpose of ESHHS is to promote international, multidisciplinary cooperation in scholarly activity and research in the history of the human sciences.

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The term ‘mental health’ was popularised in the early 1900s by physicians and social reformers. Over a century later, mental health and wellbeing are recurrent themes in the media and on government agendas, with evidence that still more needs to be done on this front. This research shows how many of the issues that concern contemporary studies of childhood (e.g. parenting, poverty) have a historical trajectory that informs the present. Stigma continues to play a significant role, and understandings are subject to the interests and values of the people, organisations and institutions attempting to define and interpret terms.

Comparing the historic research in the Children’s Society archives with current date from 84 interviews with school children, young care leavers and parents reveals that although language around mental health and wellbeing has developed (e.g. correspondence in 1880 refers to a young girl as a ‘lunatic’ and a father as ‘hopelessly insane’) the approach taken by those responsible for children’s welfare has changed remarkably little in over 100 years.  More needs to be done to improve mental health care and reduce stigma and I hope some of this research can be used to challenge today’s interpretation and treatment and get the best for our children.

‘Mental health first aid training’ in schools is a sticking-plaster solution

Dr. Wendy Sims-Schouten’s publication on The Conversation  is a poignant portrayal of the situation surrounding mental health for children, young people, and teachers in education today. The Conversation allows everyone open access to journalistic articles written by academics with expertise in the field. It is a platform where researchers can share current developments, issues and concerns openly and honestly with the general public.

Brain-Plaster

It is clear that, despite the government’s attempts to address the issue of mental health in childhood and education, little progress is being made with reports, such as those from The Children’s Society, suggesting that there have been increases in mental health issues, particularly for girls, for today’s youth culture.

On top of this, teachers – who already report vociferously about the stresses and strains of their workload and the impact this has on their own mental health, will be expected to undertake training and delivery of the proposed strategy to tackle the issue of spotting the signs and stopping the stigma surrounding mental health. So why are teachers being expected to undertake yet another pastoral aspect as a part of their already very challenging role? In this article Dr. Wendy Sims-Schouten also addresses the question of “What happened to professional mental health services?” Through looking at government pledges and actual spending in this category.

Can social media be used as a tool to help improve wellbeing in young people?

We have known for many years now the links between socialising, positive relationships, good health and wellbeing. It is a fundamental part of being human. We need to feel connected to others to feel safe and practice the exploration of self-identity; and never has this connectivity been more accessible than since the invention of the internet. However, this doesn’t come without risks and some are sceptical as to the benefits. They believe that it could put our young people in danger and in the long-run it will do more harm than good. Fears of cyberbullying are of particular concern and a cause for great anxiety among the general public.

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Not for Drs’ Edwards and Wang though; in the following study: Strangers are friends I haven’t met yet: a positive approach to young people’s use of social media, they look more positively at the impact the use of various social media tools can have on young people when used as a way of building and maintaining close relationships. Quantitative data is collected through surveys and analysed to establish how various (8) social media platforms are used in terms of relationship maintenance strategies. However, the findings do not necessarily represent generalisable trends, a much larger scale study would be needed instead, its purpose is to guide subsequent qualitative explorations. Although not focussing specifically on wellbeing, the study suggests that the use of these social media tools by young people is primarily to,

“support and protect those with whom relationships have been carefully established,” and, “to provide them with a challenging space to practice identity and relationship management strategies,”

All of which are vital to protecting wellbeing in a culture where self-identity is managed within an increasingly complex network of social relationships for which online communities can support this process and also a sense of belonging.

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To achieve a positive state of wellbeing young people must feel safe, connected and supported by those around them, especially those who they feel closest to. Prior to common use of the internet and social media, social settings in which this happened were face-to-face in groups or one-to-one. School sites however, can be unnatural settings in which relationships and young peoples’ identities are managed in the context of social hierarchies and sometimes in response to peer pressures. The use of phatic technology, or communications (social) technology used for the purpose of relationship building, via various social media platforms appear to allow young people to do much the same but in an environment where exploring identities feels safer as they are able to gauge the response of their peers before committing themselves to a particular identity and seek out those who are like-minded. The eight various social media platforms in this study appear to be able to provide young people with an online community in which bonding and self-expression may be practiced safely and without fear of judgement, therefore supporting the building of a community which could positively affect the wellbeing on young people in the long-term. However, further studies are required to measure the impact.

Victoria Wang & Simon Edwards (2016) Strangers are friends I haven't met yet: a positive approach to young people's use of social media, Journal of Youth Studies, 19:9, 1204-1219