Mental health matters to care-experienced children and young people. In their own words, it is a top priority. The risks of poor mental health faced by care-experienced children and young people are significantly greater than their peers. Yet too often they find themselves unable to access the support they need.
NYAS Cymru has set up the Newid Project to promote positive mental health and emotional wellbeing for care experienced young people between the ages of 16 and 25. The project has a particular focus on transition, supporting those who are in need of or who have accessed mental health services and need further lower-level support to manage their own health and well-being. We are grateful to Welsh Government for funding and supporting the project.
The COVID-19 pandemic both introduced and intensified mental health concerns for many people of all ages. At Newid, young people we know have reported significantly increased feelings of anxiety and low mood as the pandemic continues. A fear of loved ones dying or becoming seriously unwell, relationship difficulties, a fear of the unknown, loneliness and social isolation from friends and family, problems with housing; including a lack of space and garden area, with pressures around finance and parenting young children.
Across all our services, wider than Newid, 60% of the 230 children in care and care leavers that we surveyed during the first lockdown told us they were feeling lonely more often. Similarly, 57% of children in care and every care leaver that we surveyed told us they were feeling more anxious. This, for the majority of young people who access Newid, is on top of a pre-existing mental health concern.
For those who have found the onset of the pandemic and resulting social restrictions difficult to deal with, Newid can offer that extra level of support in understanding activities, tools and techniques to help improve wellbeing and mental health; finding out what works for them, signposting to services also and promoting access for young people to participate in peer activities. We have set up virtual daily drop-in support clinics for children, young people, parents and carers known to NYAS Cymru to gain support and resources at this difficult time.
Advocating with and on behalf of children and young people is vital. Advocacy guarantees their right to have their wishes and feelings taken into account in decisions made about them. It helps them to navigate the system, and understand what is happening. It holds CAMHS answerable on services and waiting times, using trends and issues raised through advocacy to lead to continual improvement in mental health services.
It appears common for young people’s mental health to deteriorate while transitioning from CAMHS to adult services or the community, usually around the time of their 18th birthday. For the majority of young people we work with, this sadly coincides with when they are forced to ‘leave care’. Many young people tell us how they didn’t leave care, but care left them, leading to feelings of isolation and lack of support.
Medically, there is no reason that a change in service support should happen at precisely the time when a young person is leaving care – there are no clear biological markers that indicate when transition to adulthood begins or is complete.
This was particularly concerning as the pandemic set in, so at the start of the first lockdown NYAS Cymru requested a pause to all transitions from CAMHS to adult services. Evidence from our advocacy intervention informed us that leaving CAMHS even in normal times can create further stress, anxiety and a lack of consistency for young people, sometimes resulting in the most tragic of consequences.
We had reassurances from Welsh Government that Health Boards acted on this request in order to safeguard some of the most vulnerable young people during lockdown. It may have even saved lives.
As the pandemic continues, mental health services must cope with existing pressures, overcome new obstacles and meet real needs, but always in a way that preserves our commitment as a country to children’s rights.
As we learn from our Newid project, advocacy work and wider campaigning, we will continue to work with Welsh Government to improve the mental health and long term outcomes of care-experienced children and young people.
Further details about the Newid Project can be found on the NYAS website or by contacting Johanne Jones, Newid Project Co-ordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read the article in Welsh
NB: Article first published in Children in Wales magazine ISSUE 76 Winter 2020/21 or read the Welsh version