Esther Rantzen: On a mission to save our children

“My children think I am too busy and would like me to calm down. I love the idea but I find it hard putting it into practice.”


Jewish teenagers are more at risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts as a result of exam stress, than those in wider society, according to Childline founder Dame Esther Rantzen.

Dame Esther claims that community and familial pressures placed on young Jews to achieve makes them more susceptible to panic attacks, low self-esteem, and self-harming, and that it can make pre-existing mental health conditions worse.

She says: “We need to be careful. As a community, we like to strive don’t we? Of course we want our children to do well but would you rather your child was rich or happy?”

Jewish schools are not immune to exam-related stress and it is important for parents to spend time with their children to understand if they are struggling, she adds.

Last month, Childline reported a rise in exam-related stress calls to its helpline. Nationally, it carried out 3,135 counselling sessions relating to exam stress — a rise of 11 per cent over the past two years. Problems for young people have been exacerbated by cuts to mental health services so that more young people turn to the charity because they cannot get support elsewhere.

“We are getting more children who need mental health support which is good because we are here, but it is worrying that they can’t get the help elsewhere. We need to think about this general level of unhappiness among our young people because you are never going to get enough professionals to treat them all, it is too widespread.

“We need to ask why they are so unhappy and make them feel loved and safe, and that they have people to talk to.”

Dame Esther suggests that parents limit the time their children are on social media and spend more time together, including eating together once a day.

“It is a time for people to sit together and discuss how their day was and if there is anything wrong,” she insists.

“It is also a time to reassure each other that they are valued. You need to give young people the feeling you are not judging them, you are loving them.”

She says the helpline, which was originally set up to aid children who were suffering sexual abuse, has had to adapt to keep up with the modern-day issues facing young people.

“When we started, the biggest issue children brought to us was sexual abuse; it was the big taboo of the time,” she says. “Violence against children wasn’t spoken about. Bullying was always there but, now, because of the internet, it follows a child home.

“There is this profound unhappiness, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and depression. One of our counsellors had an email from a child who said ‘I don’t want to live anymore’.”

The 77-year-old broadcaster and journalist, who made her name presenting the BBC consumer programme That’s Life!, says the fact that families are “too busy” is causing a deep sense of unhappiness in young people.

“Children get incredibly lonely and social media means there is also a huge pressure on them,”

“They see their friends doing this or doing that; they are getting likes, they are popular, they are more attractive.

“Until the internet kicked in, I think I could say to you, Childline has been a great deterrent and the prevalence of sexual abuse has fallen. But the internet has brought new forms of sexual abuse which can involve all kinds of things including blackmail and sexting, so I’m not sure I can say that.”

And Dame Esther is issuing a plea to the Jewish community to help the charity, which depends almost entirely on volunteers, and is struggling to meet the demand for its services. “We are only managing to answer three out of every four calls,” she says. “We urgently need more volunteers. We need them in Manchester, in London, in Leeds.”

Jews make good counsellors because of the strong tradition of valuing the importance of children within the family, she adds.

“In Judaism, we really do have a strong feeling about the preciousness of children. Children are the centre of our lives, our culture, our religion.”

Speaking from Childline’s London office as part of national volunteer week, Dame Esther emphasises that the volunteers who make up the charity’s workforce “are Childline”.

She says she has “handed out certificates to people who have given us 1,000 hours. One person has been with us for 17 years.

“The Jewish community know more than anyone the value of volunteering. It is part of what we do.”

Growing up in a Jewish family where children were treasured was “certainly motivation” for setting up Childline. Dame Esther remembers that “no family occasion was complete without the children and we always felt valued. I think I owe a lot to my background.”

She says that, while the community was not unique, in its focus on young people it was “especially good at it”.

Dame Esther, who also set up Silverline, a helpline for elderly people to combat loneliness, says it is in her nature to try to solve problems.

“Someone said to me that, if we relied on the government to set up Childline, we would still be waiting. I think in the voluntary sector you can be a bit more agile.”

The grandmother of three, who set up Silverline after her own experience of loneliness when her husband, Desmond Wilcox, died, says she shares her experiences because “other people are going to suffer them, too.

“When I had post-natal depression I wrote about it and people contacted me. When I suffered the impact of losing my husband and being alone aged 71, I had letters come pouring in. I think it helps people.”

It is spending time with her grandchildren that keeps her from being lonely. She says: “My children think I am too busy and would like me to calm down. I love the idea but I find it hard putting it into practice.”

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