Foster carers just like the rest of us will have noticed that we pretty much have a day to mark everything now. Some are extremely worthy, some seem frivolous so you be the judge: in January we have Martin Luther King Day and then in April (not the 1st) we mark on the 25th World Penguin Day. We have not quite used up all the days in a year but it won’t be long before we do. All of us would acknowledge the very recent World Mental Health Day is sure to earn its place in the pantheon of hash-tagged days we should collectively be marking. And because of social media, it is very easy to join in and add your voice to the throng on whichever the day to be marked is. When you get time, it is worth considering the list of such days (link below) https://www.nptechforgood.com/2018/12/03/2019-cause-awareness-giving-day-calendar-for-nonprofits/
because they serve to tell us something about ourselves – as well as where we may be journeying. This is because, as mentioned, there are quite a few days left undesignated. Mostly they are worthy and should be on the list. But returning to World Mental Health Day – as a particularly good example – this phenomenon can give us the opportunity to ask some fundamental questions about our world and the place we occupy in it. By this, I mean that before our online world my generation would have given scant thought to the issue of mental health. In that now antediluvian era, any awareness we had would have probably been very brief and transient – triggered only by the sight of someone selling charity flags outside a shop. This is why the topic of mental ill-health was rarely mentioned leading to sufferers being heavily stigmatised. Today things are much improved but there may be a cost. Or at least an effect we should be sensitive to which is the risk of collective fixation. If we provide a vocabulary which is repeatedly rinsed through social media and the media generally, it can be that we become preoccupied with mental health in a way previous generations never did. And this is not necessarily a good thing: more generously we should perhaps be aware there could be downside risks. In the recent ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ prime time show (the Final) hosted by celebrities Ant and Dec they paused proceedings to make a statement about mental health. It was revealed that in the last fifteen years, there had been a 48 per cent rise in anxiety and depression amongst British children: “But something as simple as talking together and listening to each other can build our mental wellness,” Dec stated. His partner Ant followed up with: “We all know that these days there are more distractions than ever because we are looking at the telly or we’re looking at our phones. And “But, it’s so important for our mental wellbeing to remember to get together with people we care about and talk.” This was part of a five-year campaign entitled “Britain Get Talking” which will have the backing of some of ITV’s leading stars. The list includes Gordon Ramsay, Holly Willoughby and Jonathan Ross. The programme has the backing of leading charities Mind, Young Minds and SAMH in Scotland. The chief executive of Mind, Paul Farmer, said: “We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, and we can learn to look after it. At a time when only a third of people with a mental health problem get access to any kind of help and support, it’s important to do whatever we can to help people take steps to stay well and try and prevent mental health problems developing in the first place.”
The Children’s Society has stated that just under a quarter of a million ten to fifteen-year-olds are ‘unhappy with their lives.’ Worse, the charity reports that children feel their overall happiness with life is now at its lowest level in ten years. Justin Portal Welby 105th Archbishop of Canterbury and the most senior bishop in the Church of England no less, has added his voice to the debate. In a recent piece headlined “Too many children are unhappy. We need to let them know they are not alone.”, we learn that one in eight of the children in the UK experience mental health problems.
The fact that these statistics are broadcast and that the stigma attaching to mental ill-health is reducing is, of course, a very good thing. And to be roundly welcomed. What we must be on our guard against is creating a situation where anxiety leads to mental illness. Where this looks like being the case, it is vital that children have swift access to mental health support services But our world is an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous place. It has always been so. Life itself is unpredictable and the existence of a fine line between caution and anxiety has been necessary for our survival. In certain circumstances, we should be mildly anxious as this can help us to guard against risk. Obviously this state of mind was never intended to endure. But today the dangers children confront are unique and dangerously different. This is because social media has created a world where it can be literally impossible for a child to escape. Cyberbullying is the textbook and unprecedented example of this. For someone who grew up before Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat et al, it is almost impossible to conceive how terrorising it must be for a child to be pursued relentlessly on a smartphone into their own home. Many children suffer in silence for a long time before their plight becomes known. And this is why parents – including foster carers – need to be hyper-vigilant. The idea of home has for all generations signifies safety and security. A place of retreat. Social media has changed this. It amplifies both on the general – as well as potentially personal level, a range of themes that can cause unending anxiety for children. Today’s adults have a very special responsibility in this area. This is because we grew up without being exposed to an unending torrent of fear-mongering. If children are not suffering directly from cyberbullying, they are, it appears, falling prey to worries about self-image, exam stress, crime, law and order -right through to the ultimate fear of the catastrophic consequences of climate change. We could say that the current mental health crisis afflicting so many young people is a societal problem that is; because of technology, quite unprecedented. Notions of success in every sphere of life have gained credence that young people seem to find irresistible: to be the cleverest, most successful, the prettiest and have the best social network – and by extension – strongest prospects is the new universal goal. And of course, it is for the great majority completely unobtainable. But young people seem unable to resist such ideas. They suffer from ‘online presenteeism’ with so many barely managing a few hours sleep.
Because around 65% of children now coming into foster carer have experienced some form of trauma, foster parents simply have to be better informed with higher levels of training. We are far from the days when fostering meant making a few encouraging noises from time to time, having a spare bedroom and an inexhaustible supply of beans on toast. We are firmly rooted in the era of the therapeutic foster carer. This means that foster carers will need more training and comprehension of the effects of trauma in order to help children recover and then make something of their lives. Looked at through this prism, society needs to recalibrate how it sees its foster carers. Their needs to be a psychological step change in how we think of foster carers. Arguments have raged about whether they should now be described as professionals. And there still isn’t general agreement. Those responsible for the foster care stocktake decided that they shouldn’t be. Many believe this was an error. If we label a group as professional, it suggests the possession of certain skill sets. And these will feed through into the standards that will increasingly be set for recruitment. Put simply, we will end up with foster carers who are better able to sustain and support the children they have placed with them. For those of us involved in fostering provision on a day-to-day basis, some of these key skills are blindly intoned: resilience and emotional strength being frequently used examples. Such tropes lose their edge over time. Of course, they have their literal meaning but do they have the power to stir: to galvanise?
We are living at a time when there might be much to be gained by promoting philosophical ideas in the arena of fostering. We need to address ideas about success and failure. In the past, no young person had an online persona. If we stop and think about this, we realise what a profoundly significant idea this is. The whole of adolescence has for generation after generation, meant coming to terms with and understanding a single persona. And that that can be hard enough. Youngsters today have to manage the concept of their online persona – an invitation to engage in a form of technology-driven schizophrenia unprecedented in human history. It can hardly be surprising that this is an experiment that is failing so many badly. And we adults are hugely culpable. Why? Because we are bedazzled by the magic of a technology that promises new apps and experiences daily. It is as if we have a box of chocolates with unending layers always to be delved into. The same is happening with our children. Today the Children’s Commissioner is warning now about video gaming exposing our children to the perils of gambling addiction. Are we to stand idly by? As adults – including all parents and foster carers – we need in John Major’s time-honoured phrase – ‘A Return to Basics’. In this context, being able to ask about and challenge some fundamental ideas that are becoming firmly rooted and pose significant risk. The online personas that are gripping our children invite them to be participants in a world only if they are always doing well, being seen with the best-looking people because they themselves are ‘beautiful people’, achieving outstanding results at school and of course being happy at all times. Can anyone imagine more of a burden?
This may seem a strange thing to be advancing. Most would equate such a mindset with misery and unhappiness. But this is far from the case. It is the other side of the coin in life: the antidote. And it is a disposition we all have to varying degrees, but runs counter to the prevailing idea of our times that we have to be happy all the time – which is wildly unrealistic and against our nature. All of us know that when we have sad thoughts we think in different ways. We can’t be sad all the time any more than we can be happy all the time. But the phenomenon of the online persona tempts us into thinking enduring happiness is all that matters: young people are in some sense invalid if they cannot project their lives as always happy and successful. Could there be greater tyranny? No. And the reaction to this is what is driving so many children and young people into depression and mental ill-health.
Perhaps this can be better understood if all of us – foster carers and parents included – work on developing the habit of reflection. Our smartphones and computers with all their appeals to sensory gratification mitigate against this practice. So they have to be put away. And as we care for this generation that is struggling to cope with technology, we have no choice but to rise to the challenge. And how we might consider going about this? Answer -reflection. This is the precursor to the realm of melancholy that awaits. If this sounds off-putting, approach the idea from this angle. Many argue that the melancholic temperament is by far and away the richest and sensitive of the personality types: the most creative and innovative. Some of our greatest cultural riches in terms of music and art have been brought into fruition by individuals famed for possessing this temperament. It was one that questioned and understood that pain and unhappiness are ever-present in life. Such people are now lauded as having produced work of consummate beauty and spiritual genius through which we have come to understand the human condition. And it is this deeply rooted human tendency that our digital age is in such danger of eclipsing. The signs are all around us. We need to rediscover what is essential about and contained within our humanity.
So much has been written about whether foster carers should be regarded as professionals. Far more fundamentally all of us; and this has to be of especial relevance to anyone considering fostering a vulnerable child, should be engaging with ideas about common humanity and where these might lead us to. At this point in human history, we should be telling young people that all of us will fail at certain things in life. There will be unfairness and injustice along the way. And much sadness too. But it will be these experiences that will define and give meaning to life events that are happy and joyous. One of the biggest challenges facing foster carers is to provide a personal philosophy that explains this. One to be shared with those they are caring for.
The next step toward welcoming a vulnerable child or young person into your home.
The most important thing for us to understand about any new applicant is their ‘motivations to foster’. Caring for a child who may well be traumatised and difficult to deal with, is not for everyone.
But helping such children to find security and stability can have powerful and transforming effect. Our foster carers certainly feel that they are doing something incredibly important and meaningful with their lives. For many, it comes to define their lives: that is the power of giving hope and a future to a child.
You can speak with us right now on 020 8427 3355. Alternatively, our National Line 0330 311 2845 can be used. We promise to take all the time in the world to explain the realities and the rewards of fostering. There is no obligation or pressure to make a decision. We give our applicants all the time in the world to consider the step they are contemplating. It’s vital to make sure anyone seriously considering looking after children is making the right decision for themselves, and certainly their families.
It’s a good idea – and this is known from our applicant’s feedback – to explore our website in detail. It covers issues relating to fostering in considerable detail. And our blog and news sections also provide plenty of general background about fostering.
Rainbow fostering news can be found at http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/news/ And a recommendation for an interesting blog http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/foster-care-finds-its-own-special-literary-ambassador/