The Prime Minister’s landmark speech on mental health, pledging to tackle both poor provision and the stigma surrounding it, is a watershed moment for an issue which is as destructive as it is overlooked.
What was even more refreshing is that children and young people were actually a focus – so often their experiences are unacknowledged in policy on broad issues. This time there was an understanding that getting it right for adults starts in adolescence. People who suffer from mental illness often find it starts in teenage years, but worsens in their twenties.
It wasn’t the first time mental health was the subject of a high level government announcement. Since last January little has changed and this speech was an acknowledgment that the funds previously announced have been unfairly leached away from children and young people’s services into other priorities.
It was a step forward to see a thematic review of children and young people’s services announced, with a view to sharing good and effective practice. The willingness to test new approaches and pilot different methods of reaching those in need will help make the most of meagre budgets.
Making something out of very little has been a guiding principle of the youth sector in recent years. With funding scarce and youth services shrinking, the skills and knowledge of youth workers are now employed in a range of different settings from hospital A&E departments to schools.
Expertise in connecting with young people and supporting them to develop into balanced adults is exactly what is required by young people facing mental health issues. Youth workers work with young people who are in mental distress, listening to them, supporting them and helping them manage. This kind of early intervention will naturally take place so long as young people have access to youth workers. The voluntary nature of the relationship means young people often present issues and concerns before they are identified by school, parents or health services. Managing boundaries and knowing when to refer on is crucial in these instances; youth workers are trained in how to handle disclosures of this kind.
The reduction in open access youth work has impacted on this early intervention and increasingly young people are not being identified for support until they are at crisis, needing more intensive CAMHS support at the most serious level of intervention. This obviously costs significantly more.
Youth worker support is also effective at de-escalating lower level mental health issues, helping young people feel less isolated. With this expertise available, why isn’t it being utilised?
Instead, Government want to push this back to schools, offering teachers ‘mental health first aid training’ to help them identify and support children experiencing mental health problems.
This will place a significant extra burden on teaching staff who may not even be best placed to offer this help. Unlike youth workers, many young people will not be able to regard their teacher as someone to confide in, and they will fear being treated differently if they do. At best, teachers will only be able to flag the need for further support from a medical practitioner – provision which is unlikely to be quickly available. To treat mental health as though it is a twisted ankle or a cut knee is unhelpful.
Experienced, qualified youth workers could be providing this service to young people suffering mental distress, easing the pressure on schools and working in compliment with the NHS. If the Government is committed to funding what works, this is a pilot worth testing.