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Here’s what’s missing from the debate about how to transform mental health outcomes for children

Robust data on the mental health of young people with care experience could lead to action to radically improve their transition to adulthood, says Staf’s Pamela Graham

Call 3: All children and young people should have access to mental health support when needed

The Scottish Thoroughfare and Aftercare Forum (Staf) is committed to a Scotland where the wellbeing and success of young people leaving care across Scotland is indistinguishable from that of their peers in the general population.

Good mental health must be at the heart of work to achieve this vision – that’s why we support Children in Scotland’s call for all children and young people to have access to mental health support when needed.

Our starting point in delivering this has to be to assess the scale and nature of the challenge we face, particularly for care experienced young people. The prevalence of mental health issues amongst looked after children is often quoted as being around 45 per cent. Those who work with care experienced children and young people will instinctively recognise the truth in these figures. Yet there’s a problem: these figures relate to an Office of National Statistics survey from 2002-2003.

There is no doubt that where there is routinely collected data, the issue gets attention. Indeed, the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Task Force itself was announced in 2018 following the publication of rejected referrals data that the-then Health Secretary, Jeanne Freeman, described as “unacceptable”. And we know rejected referrals remains an issue because we have the data.

So if we’re serious about improving the mental health and wellbeing of care experienced young people, we need to start recording and monitoring data. Not only will this help us understand the challenge we face, it will keep the pressure on decision-makers to take action.

We do know that care experienced young people have often faced trauma and neglect, which has a lasting impact on their mental health. All the evidence points to strong relationships being key to healing from this trauma, supporting health and wellbeing and, ultimately, happy lives.

For care experienced young people that strong relationship can often be with a social worker, throughcare and aftercare worker or residential worker. Yet we know that these workers face increasing workloads, rising stress levels and falling budgets – making it hard to privilege the relationships young people need to thrive.

Clinical psychologist and expert in trauma-informed organisations, Dr Karen Treisman, said at one of our events earlier this year: “Staff wellbeing and wellness is at the absolute epicentre of being trauma-informed.” We agree.

If we are to develop trauma-informed services, we need to first ensure that the wellbeing of the workforce is supported to allow them to bring their ‘whole self’ to work and deliver the relationship-based practice we know is key to healing from trauma for young people.

We know that young people leaving care face a difficult transition to adulthood, so this relationship-building comes at a crucial time. Our Care Leavers Into Employment Focus Group recently told us that mental health is a key priority in supporting care leavers into work. The young people involved in our Youth Just Us project have also decided healthcare, including drug and alcohol services, will be one of the priorities of their work.

To address the challenges faced in the transition to adulthood, services should be delivered based on the young person’s stage in life, not their age. For that reason, we would agree with the recommendation of the Youth Commission on Mental Health Services that ‘young adult’ CAMHS services should be available between 16 and 25, and adult services from 21.

We also welcome the Scottish Government’s provision of more counsellors in schools, colleges and universities and will look at the detail of proposals in the Programme for Government for a new community wellbeing service to ensure that care leavers can access this.

There is clearly a need for more action to improve the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people and there can be no delay in taking the steps required. But we also need robust data on the mental health of young people with care experience so that we can further strengthen the case for the support they need, particularly in their challenging transition to adulthood.

We know there is acknowledgement across the Scottish Parliament that change is needed. Our job is to keep the pressure up so that words become deeds.

Pamela Graham is Staf’s Head of Learning and Development. She is responding here to Call 3 of our 25 Calls campaign, 'All children and young people should have access to mental health support when needed', from our children and young people’s group Changing our World.

About the author

Pamela Graham is Staf’s Head of Learning and Development

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Call 3

All children and young people should have access to mental health support when needed

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