Children as young as 8 are to be taught mindfulness and deep breathing techniques as part of a government initiative to promote happiness and well-being and stem the rising tide of childhood and adolescent mental illness, according to today’s paper.
The idea of happiness as a human right comes, unsurprisingly, from America . Indeed the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is written into the Declaration of Independence (it was originally “life, liberty and land”, but there was a bit of a problem with the land bit). To be fair, it does say “the pursuit of happiness”, rather than just “happiness” – even the idealistic and optimistic Founding Fathers didn’t go that far.
And there’s all the difference in the world between unhappiness, stress and mental illness.
Stress is part of life and can even be beneficial in small quantities. It’s the same for unhappiness – nobody likes being unhappy, but a bit of unhappiness is to be expected. We may be unhappy because we don’t get our own way about something, or we feel let down or things haven’t gone to plan.
If simple techniques like mindfulness and deep breathing can help children cope with these vicissitudes, then that’s fine. Other things like drama, problem-solving skills and physical activity may also help – although school sport has probably caused as much misery as it has prevented over the years
In-depth and long-term stress or unhappiness are different matter. Mental illness is a different matter again – people who are mentally ill may be unhappy, but people who are unhappy are not necessarily mentally ill.
Prevention is better than cure, but if children and young people are chronically stressed or so unhappy that they are unable to cope, then they need more than lessons in deep breathing and mindfulness.
If they’re caused by societal problems and expectations, then we need to address them through societal structures and personal action.
If they’re caused by individual circumstances, then we need measures in place to identify and help resolve those difficulties.
If it’s reached the point of triggering mental illness, then we need appropriate levels of support.
The stress and unhappiness of a child forced to move from one B&B to the next because there’s no adequate housing available is not going to be solved by a bit of deep breathing. Neither are the problems of a teenager undergoing a mental health crisis in a police cell because there isn’t a bed for them in a hospital, let alone a specialist adolescent unit.