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Guardian Unlimited | Guardian daily comment | Reasons to be cheerless

Guardian Unlimited, Madeleine Bunting, Monday March 1, 2004

A quarter of children aged between four and six say they are "stressed out", and the proportion rises to just over half of children under 16, reported a survey published late last week. It's getting just too much. Children who should have no thoughts in their heads but how to skip, kick a football and splash poster paint around are cracking up.

Evidence of the increasing incidence of children's mental ill-health is reaching mountainous proportions: self-harm, attention deficit disorder, depression and obsessive behaviour have all increased sharply among children in recent years. So this survey, conducted by a market research company, TNS, wasn't saying anything we hadn't already heard plenty of times before.

What was interesting was how this survey was reported as "Britain in danger of breeding a generation of emotional weaklings": this generation of children was more cosseted than any previous one, and more neurotic, and perhaps the two phenomena were connected. The Times concluded in a leader that we are fast becoming a nation of "emotional hypochondriacs" as stress is transformed into a disease by a growing industry of therapists, counsellors and lawyers eager for new business.

The coverage reflected an increasingly popular view that the growing incidence of stress and depression is a bad case of the emperor's new clothes. We've turned our personal shortcomings into a disease. Individualism has generated chronic self-indulgence and hugely inflated aspirations to happiness while sapping our will to overcome adversity. Past generations had much worse to deal with, but showed stoicism, forbearance and fortitude. Chimney sweeps and match girls had no time to worry about stress; they were too concerned about where their next meal was coming from. While parents once buried their tiny children in droves and suffered pestilence, war and poverty with a cheerful smile, we are running to the therapist's couch over the smallest setback. It can all be boiled down to "Buck up!"

In fairness to the author I should point out that her article goes on to take issue with this attitude... but I'm afraid I think "Buck up!" is exactly the right response to any "stressed out" children currently enjoying peace, democracy, health and wealth in the western world.

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