One of Gordon Brown’s first acts as prime minister was to let the public know that not only was he tough on super-casinos and civil liberties, but that he’s tough on drugs too.
Last month he announced the second review in two years on the classification of cannabis – making clear he is in favour of reclassifying it as a more dangerous drug.
It’s no coincidence the announcement came as the tabloid press seized on a report in the Lancet medical journal to argue that young people are at higher risk of mental illness if they smoke cannabis.
The hype and the soundbites were ridiculous. One headline said that “one joint could ruin your life chances”. Only it didn’t seem to ruin the life chances of Jacqui Smith or the several other cabinet members who say they smoked cannabis at university.
I work with a lot of young people who are dealing with a lot of difficult issues.
Drugs can be a real problem for many young people. So can mental illness. But to link them in this way doesn’t make sense.
Cannabis can be a factor in psychotic incidents, but it is just one factor.
One of the young men I worked with smoked cannabis and had a psychosis. But could you really say the cannabis caused the psychosis? Actually he faced far greater problems that caused him real anxiety.
To understand the increasing level of mental health problems among young people you have to look at the pressures they face.
In my experience, and many studies back this up, long term depression is a bigger problem among young people than psychotic episodes. This is caused by the pressures on people’s daily lives.
One of the biggest problems many young people with mental health problems face is social isolation and a sense that they have no real prospects.
A recent report from the Institute of Psychiatry highlighted the growing mental health problems caused by exams and the stress of leaving school.
But there are also other big issues in young people’s lives caused by bullying, bereavement, and physical or emotional abuse. There are young people whose parents can’t cope. Maybe they have no money or need support themselves. That impacts on young people.
Worrying increases in self harm and in eating disorders tell you something about how young people feel about their relationship to the world.
I work with 13 to 19 year olds. The biggest problem they face is housing.
I meet 17 and 18 year olds who are having to share a room with a sibling half their age. And lots of young people have to sleep in a front room. Because of overcrowding there is no privacy.
These are young people trying to work out who they are and make sense of the world – but they don’t have
any space to themselves.
Overcrowding puts more stress on everyone in the household, so there are more arguments, fights and tension.
A lot of young people take drugs because their lives are stressful or because they are bored. Experimenting with drugs can alleviate the boredom of having nothing to do.
The government is not tackling any of the very real problems that cause mental illness in young people.
And they are not trying to help people with drug problems either.
Just two weeks after Brown was declaring the danger of cannabis, the government announced a £50 million cut in funding for frontline drugs services over the next three years.
This comes on the back of years of cuts in projects that help and advise young people about drugs.
It is more and more the case that the only funding available is for services that work with young people who already have drug problems, rather than preventative or longer term work.
If people have a drug problem, then, like any other addiction, they need help. Instead they are thrown into the criminal justice system.
Young people are increasingly seen as a criminal problem – the number of under 18s in custody has increased by 20 percent in the last ten years.
And over 50 percent of young people in custody are suffering from some form of mental illness.
Instead of coming out with knee-jerk responses to drugs, crime and young people, the government should spend the money they throw at punitive measures such as prison on long term support for people and decent services and housing.
After all, it is government policies that are making young people ill.
Dean Ryan is a youth worker in north London