Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. The report was brought to my attention by Lucy Boadman, my local member of the Youth Parliament, who has been in the Chamber for Youth Parliament debates. Lucy is in the Public Gallery to listen to the debate today and has even assisted me in formulating my remarks today—I will return to that later. As a result of the contact from Lucy, I made my own application for a Westminster Hall debate, but owing to an administrative error somewhere behind the Chair it was unable to be heard. I therefore congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for bringing this debate to the Chamber today.
Before I address the subject directly, I would like to applaud not only the hon. Lady but the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, not just for the seriousness of the issue but for the legitimacy it confers on the Youth Parliament. As we all try to engage with young people more and more, it is imperative that the efforts of the Youth Parliament get acknowledged and debated in here. As Lucy, now a former member, tells me, when the Youth Parliament casts out for subjects, mental health is very often in the top five or six that concern young people, so it is important that it is considered. The report is excellent, but it is also important that we debate it today.
The report is thorough and makes several conclusions and recommendations, as highlighted by the hon. Lady, but I wanted to get a better understanding of the issues facing young people in the modern age that can lead to the mental health issues laid out in the report. It is a long time since I was a young person—[Hon. Members: “No!”]—thank you—so I thought the best way for me to understand the issue was to make use of the expertise of young people, as highlighted in recommendation 17 of the report. I decided to do that off my own bat, so I had a conversation not only with Lucy but with another 17-year-old young lady I know very well, Martha Banks Thompson. I asked them to tell me what their thoughts and experiences of life as a teenager were and about the pressures that they and their friends have to face in the modern-day world. Both girls are A-level politics students, but from different ends of the country. Lucy is from my constituency of High Peak and Martha lives in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). My remarks today are very much—although not completely—based on the conversations we have had.
Mental health issues in any person, of any age, are very often difficult to diagnose. As has been highlighted, they are not like a broken leg, which can be seen; they are not as tangible as that. Mental health issues can often be mistaken for a temporary emotional upheaval or distress, but in the young they can often be put down to other things: pure teenage angst, raging hormones or just plain old teenage moodiness—or, as some people say, the Kevin and Perry syndrome. Consequently, these issues go unspotted and unnoticed and therefore untreated. By the time it is realised that there is a problem, it has manifested itself to such a degree that it becomes even harder to treat.
Who would, should or could identify the problem? In all likelihood it would be an adult—a parent, a guardian or even a teacher. Because of that, there is a generational gap. I am sure anyone in the Chamber or listening today will have heard from a teenage the line, “You don’t understand”, and in this case I think that, as adults, we do not understand. So what should we look for and how does the problem manifest itself? There are various symptoms and they are all too easy to miss. As we have heard, there could be anxiety, depression, eating disorders, contemplation of suicide or maybe even self-harm. Self-harm can sometimes be seen as a cry for help or attention, but more often it is a symptom of a much deeper problem. When can it occur? In days gone by, the pinch points for stress among teenagers were usually exam times: January for their mock GCSEs—they were O-levels when I took them—or May for their final exams. However, in the modern world there are so many more pressures that can impact on young people and bring about problems.
How are things different from when we were young? What are the extra factors and circumstances that we did not have to contend with that the modern-day young person or teenager does? There are many, but it would be a derogation of our duty to consider this question without looking at the impact of social media, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp or Snapchat, or the many more that those of us in the Chamber have probably not heard of. Only a few years ago, they were a figment of the imagination—in my day they were science fiction—but now not only are they part of everyday life, but for the modern teenager they are often the preferred method of communicating with each other.
These technologies have much to commend them and have many advantages, not just for the teenager but for all of us in the Chamber. I am sure many of us tweet and have Facebook pages, and I am sure we all have websites. Indeed, I would venture to say that most of our communication as Members of Parliament with our constituents comes via email, making us more accessible than we have ever been. It is good that we are, and so is communication between young people. Again, I am going to betray my age now, but the days of sending notes to the object of our affections across the classroom with “SWALK” written on the back of the envelope—
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): SWALK?
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Exactly. I mentioned this to Martha and Lucy and they did not know what SWALK was. I can tell my hon. Friend that it stands for “Sealed with a loving kiss”. Those days are long gone. Now everything is done via social media. It is out in the open for everyone to see and it is also there forever. The SWALK letter is read. If it is not reciprocated, it is thrown away; if it is reciprocated, it is replied to. On social media, it remains there forever.
That brings with it perils and pressures. Relationships, appearance, fashion, style—all are analysed in the public glare. Relationships, attitudes and opinions once shared privately between friends are now put out for the world to see, with every comment seemingly soliciting a further comment or response and the rhetoric growing from that. With, for example, chat groups on applications such as WhatsApp, it is very easy for what could be seen as a little verbal leg-pulling or teasing to take on a sinister complexion. We increasingly hear stories of cyber-bullying and the posting of revenge pictures. I am sure all of us in this House have at one time or another been on the receiving end of comments online that we would see as offensive or upsetting. However, for a teenager, maybe uncertain, vulnerable or lacking in confidence, such remarks can have a shattering effect on their self-confidence and in turn their mental state.
Let us look at the media in general. The modern media seem to present all young people in reality programmes such as “Made in Chelsea” as perfectly formed human beings, which puts pressure on so many young people to be absolutely perfect. The slightest imperfection, perceived or otherwise, can become a major issue. We hear a lot about body image, too, and young people’s attitude towards it. Again, the desire to be perfect crops up, so when a perceived imperfection is not only remarked on but ridiculed via social media, it can be amplified and re-tweeted, when “likes”, “unlikes” and “comments” can become very cruel, particularly to uncertain and vulnerable teenagers. This can severely damage the self-esteem and mental health of a young person.
Our consumer society is another issue. As we see with mobile phones, clothing and computers, everywhere we look there is a thirst for the latest, the best, the biggest, the fastest and the shiniest, while anything less than the optimum is seen as a problem. This is another issue that ratchets up the mental pressure on young people. I am not saying that a young person’s not having the latest iPhone will lead to mental health problems, but I am saying is that if someone is vulnerable and has low self-esteem, this sort of thing can work to enhance those insecurities and push someone into the territory that we are discussing today.
We need to remember, too, that all these pressures—I have mentioned only a few—are impacting on young people at a time when their minds, brains and characters are still growing and forming. As we get older, we form our minds and personalities, and we develop our own resilience to many of these outside pressures.
John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): My hon. Friend is putting forward a pertinent case and providing an accurate analysis of the pressures on our teenagers. Does he agree that it is important to recognise that we need an integrated solution, which requires education and NHS response, so that schools can get in very early and start tackling some of the behaviours that lead to poor mental health outcomes?
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and his point about the need for a whole school approach is acknowledged in the conclusion of the report. It states that when children leave school, they should be conversant with all the issues around mental health, which the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood also mentioned in her speech. As I was saying, as we get older, we develop our own resilience, but in young people that development is not complete. That is the issue that we need to be aware of, and it is where schools need to play a part in helping to develop that resilience.
As we know, a stigma is attached to mental health—and nowhere more so than with young people. No young person wishes to admit to it for fear of being labelled, and people often are labelled in this society. Parents are similarly affected, so this leads to a situation of potential denial—I am not sure that “denial” is exactly the right word—which further exacerbates the problem. There seems to be a lack of willingness to say, or a fear of saying, “Look, I have a problem, and I need some help.” There should be no stigma attached to any young person admitting that they are struggling with certain issues, and neither should there be any barrier to parents making a similar plea.
Young people should have somewhere to go to ask for help—the report mentions a counsellor—without fear of ridicule. They should not be judged or labelled either by their peers or by society. Parents can be the strongest help and support for any young person, and we should look to families and family support units as well. We need to enable parents to play as full a part as they can. A young person who is getting some help at 15 can find on turning 16 that they are suddenly deemed to be an adult and their parents can be almost excluded from playing a full part. An attentive parent who is trying to help can face being told, “We can’t discuss this with you, because your girl or boy is now 16”. We should look to see whether there is a way around that problem.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Lucy Boardman and Martha Banks Thompson for their help. They have given me an insight into the world of the modern teenager and into how 21st-century pressures impact on their lives in a way that did not impact on my life as a teenager or that of many other Members here today. It was a very illuminating and educational experience for me, and I pay tribute to both of them for their candour and their honesty. As I have said, talking about these issues freely takes a lot. Many of my remarks today have come as a result of their contribution.
I say gently to the Minister that we must not in any way fall into the trap of dismissing mental health issues in the young as mere growing pains. This is a serious matter. I know she understands, but let us recognise that to provide the help needed, it needs to be not only readily and easily available, but available for as long as it is needed for each person according to their individual needs.