The Child Mental Health Crisis: Does Mentoring Matter?

Today is Youth Mental Health Day #YMHD, a day to encourage understanding and discussion of mental health in young people, and to talk about how to improve mental health. Beth Thomas is the Mentoring Scheme Co-Ordinator and Safeguarding Director at Our Place Support CIC, and in this guest blog she shares her own experiences and how mentoring can make a difference to youth mental health.

Youth mental health is in a state of emergency and everyday should be a Youth Mental Health day. Recent statistics* show that 374,000 under 18s are on the waiting list for mental health support. This shocking statistic is the harsh reality of many experiences of children and young people in England today. It is also a gross underrepresentation of those struggling with their mental health. 

I have struggled with my mental health since I was a child. Anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviours…Crying myself to sleep every night for years, just wanting the pain to stop. Mental health wasn’t really talked about back then. You suffered in silence. It was lonely, confusing and scary.

At 16, while living in a hostel, I went to my GP and told her I didn’t want to live anymore. She prescribed me Prozac and Valium and sent me on my way. No referral for counselling, no talking through things, just hard drugs. What followed was 20 years of an endless cycle of antidepressants and beta-blockers. Not once sent for a mental health assessment despite my history of sitting in GP offices over the years, saying that I wanted to die. When I told one doctor ‘I think I have Bipolar’, he simply told me to take up swimming. At 33, I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar, 15 years after I first told a doctor.

It is these battles with my own mental health that inspired me to start mentoring. As coordinator of ‘Our Place’ Mentoring Scheme, I wanted to be the person I wish I had when I was younger. I didn’t want children to struggle the way I did for decades. I wanted for their voices to be heard, the way mine wasn’t. 

A common misconception about mentoring is that it is just someone ‘to talk to’, but it is so much more than that. Much like counselling, it’s a discipline in its own right, taking form in a variety of ways; including through youth and outreach work, or delivered in schools. As a school-based intervention it can involve Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) and trauma informed activities, all adapted to suit the child’s own needs and character. And it’s not just the sessions that make for a successful mentoring relationship, but all the unwritten and unspoken aspects too. The consistency and stability it brings to a child, the boundaries, management of expectations, the building of trust and probably most importantly; a safe, confidential space.

Since ‘Our Place’ was established 10 years ago, we have seen a major change in why children access our service. Initially, we worked with children on issues such as friendships, anger, family breakdown and low self-esteem. Today, we are seeing a significant increase in issues such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and even suicidal ideation in children as young as nine.

Despite this alarming increase, many children who come to us do not meet the criteria for statutory intervention from local authorities. A key barrier is the diagnostic tools used for assessments. For instance, parents tell us the outcome of the assessment can depend on how the child presents on the day and lack of engagement with the practitioner conducting the assessment.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) are undoubtedly underfunded, understaffed and under-resourced. We currently live in a society where we encourage people to speak out if they are struggling, that it is “good to talk”, but what happens next? We are finding that they are left waiting, with their voices silenced and lost in a broken system, sometimes for more than a year. Recent research shows that children across England wait more than 12 months just for an initial assessment, let alone any actual support or help. An assessment which can be incredibly intimidating and scary. Being asked to open up about their feelings to a stranger they will never see again. A year long wait and build up, only to then be told they don’t meet the criteria. No follow up. No feedback. No support.

It hurts to see so many children still struggling to get the support they need, just like I did all those years ago. Their experiences will impact them all the way into adulthood, and trust me, the adult mental health system is just as broken. The pandemic has pushed awareness of mental health but there is a lack of funding that would allow for mentoring interventions. More funding would enable schools to work directly with mentoring organisations to deliver the necessary support and safe space for every child. Whilst mentoring should not replace the interventions provided by trained psychiatrists and psychologists, it is a vital resource that all children should have access to. When it comes to mental and emotional well-being, we must remember not one shoe fits all. We need a range of options to meet individual needs, whether through Youth Hubs, school-based interventions, outreach work or CAHMS.

Mentoring provides the platform to support children with life-changing skills and strategies that, if implemented at an early age, would arguably reduce long-term mental health issues. Just think how different your life may have been if you had a mentor as a child? Someone who listened and supported you, guiding you through your adversities, empowering you to be who you truly wanted to be.

To quote Oprah: “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself”.

How life changing would it be for a child struggling with their mental health to have a mentor giving that much needed hope, rather than being told: “You don’t meet the criteria.”

About the author

Beth is the Mentoring Scheme Co-Ordinator and Safeguarding Director at Our Place Support CIC, and is also studying an MSC in Child and Adolescent Mental Well-Being. She is part of our spokesperson network programme.

* https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jul/18/nhs-is-failing-half-of-young-people-with-mental-health-issues

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