Improving mental health ‘starts with parents not school’

Selfish parents should take responsibility for some children’s mental health problems, a university vice-chancellor and former headmaster claims.

Sir Anthony Seldon said schools had to play their part but that the role of families had been largely forgotten by ministers addressing the issue.

While recent announcements by the government on mental health were welcome, the focus should shift away from fixing problems to preventing them, he said.

Sir Anthony, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and former head at Wellington College, told The Times: “It is better and cheaper to prevent someone falling off the edge of a waterfall than to try to put back together their shattered body at the bottom. Schools need to embrace positive health approaches far more and become much more psychologically healthy environments, where children feel safe but also have very firm boundaries about their behaviour.

“Families are the largely forgotten part of the proactive approach. Governments are afraid to talk about this area. We champion the liberty of adults to have children, how they want, but not the liberty and right of the child to have stable and secure parenting. The pleasure and rights of parents are lauded over responsibility to children.”

Sir Anthony said children needed not only security but firm and high expectations of their behaviour. “Parenting is a lifelong responsibility, and the better the parenting — ie love and security with firm guidelines — the less likely the child will be to develop mental problems. We need a massive drive towards responsible parenting as part of the whole mental health strategy.”

The Times has been running a mental health campaign, Time to Mind. Four months ago, the Department of Health announced it would fund an initiative to help parents to tell the difference between normal teenage behaviour and medical problems such as depression, anorexia or eating disorders.

Sir Anthony said pressure on children at home could come from breakdowns in stability. He said: “One in six people is born with an addictive personality. The first few years of childhood are all important. The more stable that background can be and the more secure the attachment to a primary carer, then the more likely the person is to cope with an addiction and keep it within manageable scales.

“The prime minister has started talking more about relationships which is important. The freedom of people to lead the life they want to lead is often at variants with the right of children to have security. The government needs to talk much more about the home than the school.”

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