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Mental Health: Weight and Shape-related Bullying

Volume 799: debated on Monday 22 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of weight- and shape-related bullying, criticism and teasing on long-term mental health.

My Lords, bullying in all its forms can have a serious effect on mental health. Children who are exposed to frequent, persistent bullying are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems; exposure to bullying is also associated with elevated rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, which can last into adulthood. The Government are providing more than £2.8 million of funding up to 2020 to support schools in tackling bullying.

My Lords, weight-related teasing is a form of weight bias, the consequences of which can include depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, substance abuse, eating disorders, obesity and suicidality. Weight bias is on the increase and is prevalent across the population. Research shows that even health professionals are not immune to negative stereotypes that connect character and capability with weight. Is the Minister confident that adequate social policies are in place to address and reduce the incidence of weight bias? Does she believe that there is sufficient provision in the law to protect all of us, young and old, from discrimination on the basis of size and shape?

The noble Baroness has a record of raising this important issue. The Government recognise that poor body image is not only a common problem but is associated with mental ill health. Approximately 70% of adolescent girls and 45% of adolescent boys want to change their body, weight or shape. As she rightly points out, in the most extreme cases, that can lead to eating disorders, depression or even feeling suicidal. The Government have delivered a broad programme of body image work over the past six years. We believe that more work can be done but we are working hard to make sure that we expand our eating disorder community care work for children and young people over the next few years. I welcome continuing the debate to see what more can be done.

My Lords, the latest Barnardo’s report, Overcoming Poverty of Hope, showed that 69% of young people,

“feel they will have worse ‘overall happiness and mental health’ compared to their parents’ generation”,

with one young person saying that social media is “massive for mental health” because of the,

“unrealistically high expectations of body image and lifestyles”.

On top of that, the report found that,

“young people with additional life challenges, such as young carers and care leavers are more susceptible to the negative impacts of social media as they are more likely to experience social isolation”.

What are the Government doing to work with mental health charities, such as YoungMinds, and young carers to address this situation?

The noble Baroness is right that children exposed to persistent bullying risk experiencing these problems. This is related to the experience of face-to-face bullying, but exposure on social media can also cause the problem. That is why the Department for Education is providing over £2.8 million of funding between September 2016 and 2020 to four anti-bullying organisations—Internet Matters, the Diana Award, Anti-Bullying Alliance and the Anne Frank Trust—to support schools to tackle bullying. Of course, all schools must have in place an anti-bullying policy, which Ofsted regulates.

My Lords, we have already heard from noble Lords how important this problem is, but of course it is partly the responsibility of the Department of Health. I ask my noble friend whether we are also talking cross-departmentally. Surely schools have a role to play here, so are teachers being taught about the problems this can bring? Is DCMS being taught about online bullying, et cetera?

My noble friend is quite right. As I have already pointed out, DfE-funded anti-bullying work is ongoing. Work is also increasing to join up the provision for young people through the children and young people Green Paper, which will put in place early intervention provision to make sure that young people do not have to wait until they are ill before they can get support. This problem needs to be challenged right across government, which is why we have also brought in the online harms White Paper to make sure that social media companies play their part.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in recent years there has been a marked reduction in mental health counselling services for young people? Can the Minister tell us anything encouraging about the redevelopment of specialist mental health services for young people?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that we must make sure we invest in the services needed to respond to the increasing reports of mental ill heath in young people. That is why we have focused on increasing mental health funding. I am pleased to report that the amount spent on mental health will be £12 billion in the next year and that all CCGs will meet the mental health investment standard. We are also investing in particular in suicide prevention over the next three years—£25 million to support local suicide prevention plans to make sure that local authorities are able to have a multiagency suicide prevention response, which I think the noble Lord will agree is extremely important.

My Lords, the Children’s Society has done quite a bit of research into the profile of those involved in bullying. Many have had very unhappy lives. Does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea, in policy formation, if we spent more time talking to the children themselves and getting their case put more fully before us? The Children’s Society advocates that the Government systematically measure children’s well-being and use this to inform policy-making. Does the Minister accept the potential merits of measuring children’s well-being?

As usual, the right reverend Prelate raises an important point. The fundamental principle of using lived experience to develop policy is an important principle within the Department of Health and across government. Most particularly, the experience of young people—those who are bullied and those who are bullying—should be taken into account. This is the only way we will get to the bottom of this problem and stamp it out once and for all.

My Lords, as the co-chair of the APPG on Bullying, I have seen the reports that other noble Lords have referred to. It is good that more investment is going into mental health in the NHS, but schools still need front-line support for many bullied children. Over half of children report that bullying about their size and body image is the leading cause. What can the Government do to ensure that there really is access to front-line services for children in school?

As I have said, we are making sure that we bring the investment into the front line with this £2.8 million. In addition to that, all schools are legally required to have behaviour policies with measures to prevent all forms of bullying. They have the freedom to develop their own anti-bullying strategies to make sure that they are appropriate to their environment, but they are held to account by Ofsted. This is at the forefront of the Department for Education’s guidance to schools on how to prevent and respond to bullying as part of their overall behaviour policy.