UK Gov’t Ousts Mental Health ‘Champion’ After Testing Criticism

(Photo: Ken McKay, Rex)

(Photo: Ken McKay, Rex)

Authorities in the United Kingdom dismissed the government’s mental health tsar after she publicly criticized education polices, in particular for “over testing” children, which she claims has deteriorated children’s mental health.

Natasha Devon, who was appointed last August, raised issue with the government’s current policy drive of more rigorous testing. The role of a mental health tsar was created to tackle taboos surrounding mental health and to raise awareness about children’s health issues. But since being appointed, Devon has been an active critic of increased testing. Most recently, at a conference of teachers in London, she cited statistics that showed record levels of stress among the young, and she criticized those who said children need to acclimate to stress.

“At one end of the scale, we’ve got four-year-olds being tested, at the other end of the scale we’ve got teenagers leaving school and facing the prospect of leaving university with record amounts of debt. Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.” She also accused the government of fostering a “social climate where it’s really difficult for any young person to enjoy optimal mental health” in a column for the Times Educational Supplement.

For its part, the government denied that the scrapping of her post had anything to do with her criticisms. Others suggest, however, that the government fired Devon as a way to silence her. Devon will remain on the government’s mental health steering group, which will be making recommendations on how to improve children’s mental health this summer.

Javier Espinoze, the education editor for The Telegraph, reports that Devon’s firing comes after thousands of British parents kept their children home from school last Tuesday in an act of protest against tough tests for six and seven years old. The increased pressure on students reduces their time spent with family members, who themselves are being challenged in new ways by an increasingly demanding society.

Sally Weale, an education correspondent for The Guardian, writes that Devon is looking for an opportunity that will allow her to continue to campaign for the rights and health of young people.

Before her work in government, Devon was the founder of the Self-Esteem Team and Body Gossip, organizations that deliver mental health education to young people and visit three schools a week. To date, these organizations have hosted classes for more than 50,000 teenagers, parents, and teachers. Devon says that her work with the Self-Esteem Team will continue.

“She has spoken forcefully about teenage and children’s mental health, and she has said really important things. Firstly that resources available for dealing with young people’s mental ill-health are inadequate,” said Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Graeme Demianyk of The Huffington Post notes that Devon has received an outpouring of support on social media. Her dismissal aroused a torrent of criticism from politicians and teachers for whom Devon has become a much-admired public figure. Support for Devon cut across the usual ideological, social, and cultural divides.