Three years ago, my daughter opened her GCSE results and promptly burst into tears. Had she failed a subject she was hoping to take at A level? No, she had “only” got 5A*s and 5As. If you think that sounds crazy then, strictly speaking, you are correct, but chances are you don’t have a teenager of your own. Craziness is where the young live now. Yesterday, I asked my girl what she thought lay behind the epidemic of mental health problems in young people. “You can never be good enough,” she shrugged. “I got really solid GCSEs but they could have been better. It’s not just academic work, it’s everything. Kids my age spend an average of eight hours a day online and 80 per cent of advertising features the female body, always perfect looking, so pretty much the whole time you know you’re not good enough.”
“Could do better” used to be the laconic teacher’s scrawl on a sub-standard essay; now it’s the self lacerating mantra of our children during what are supposed to be the best years of their lives. A survey by the World Health Organisation in 2014 revealed that a fifth of 15-year-olds in England said they had self harmed in the past twelve months. That finding bore out anecdotal evidence I had heard from other parents and teachers. Like my daughter’s tutor in the sixth form who suggested that her persistent stomach complaint might have a psychological cause. I was taken aback. “Do you really think so?,’ I asked dubiously.
“Probably a third of the year are suffering from depression, anorexia or self harming,” he replied.
The news was deafening. My daughter’s state school was rightly proud of its exam results, but it struck me as quite well-balanced compared to the London hothouses attended by friends’ children. Schools like the bluestocking academy where two girls who had a nervous breakdown and anorexia respectively sat their GCSEs while they were sectioned in a psychiatric unit. (Now that’s what I call a sick note.) Then I thought of an acquaintance and her daughter I had bumped into in the street. As the woman babbled happily about how hard Jessica was working for her Oxford place, I tried not to gape at the girl herself. She looked like she had come out of Belsen; sunken eyes, a beard of white down on her bird face, a tiny coat three sizes too big for her. Jessica looked more likely to be heading for an early grave than Balliol. Was the mother out of her mind? What fever of vicarious ambition possessed her that exam results were more important than her child’s health?
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