Children and young people today are facing an increasingly complex and stressful world, with anxieties about the cost-of-living crisis and social media being compounded by the damaging legacy of the pandemic. We caught up with the Children’s Services Manager for Project Me, Polly Atkins, who spoke to us about the work her team is doing to support the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people in Swindon.
What is Project Me and how do you and your team support children and young people’s mental health?
“Project Me is essentially four mental health support teams consolidated into one service that supports children and young people in about 83% of schools in Swindon.
We work in schools delivering mental health interventions like one-to-one low-intensity CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), distress tolerance, grounding and mindfulness training. We also have group work around common mental health issues like anxiety and low mood, as well as support for the transition of year six students into secondary school. We’ve also got a 6-week peer mentoring programme that trains young people who are interested in becoming mentors on how to listen, communicate, and support their peers while also taking care of their own wellbeing," said Polly.
What kind of mental health issues are affecting the young people you’re working with?
“The vast majority, about 90%, of the mental health support we’re currently offering young people is around anxiety. And we’re seeing school behaviour policies not being applied in individualised or trauma-informed ways. Schools just don’t know how to deal with young people who are coping with anxiety around coming back into a busy school environment and socialising with their peers.”
A YouGov poll commissioned by Barnardo’s for our latest report, A crisis on our doorstep, in February 2023 found that almost 1 in 3 parents (30%) said their child’s mental health had worsened – up from 1 in 4 (26%) in October 2022. This rise in mental ill health amongst young people is caused at least in part to the cost-of-living crisis, but Polly knows other factors are also having a negative impact.
Children’s Services Manager, Barnardo's Project Me
What would you say are the root causes of this worrying increase in mental health issues?
“I think unlimited access to social media plays a big part in young people’s mental health issues. A lot of parents also aren’t aware of what their kids are looking at or how to support them in making good choices on social media. While it’s up to parents or an adult who’s looking after a child or young person to teach them how to be safe online, it can be really difficult to know how to get that right.
We’re still dealing with the after-effects of the pandemic on young people’s mental health too. In Swindon, there are now far more young people who are being home-schooled because they were finding it difficult to readjust to a school environment. In particular, we’re seeing a lot of young people who are being massively overwhelmed by the transition into larger secondary schools because they haven’t had the usual kind of transition activities and in-person support from their primary school that young people before them have had.
Cost-of-living is also a massive issue, with lots of students mentioning in our sessions their worries about their parents not being able to afford their bills or about where they’re getting their next meal from. They’re worried about their mum going to the food bank or that their dad has been made redundant. I think most parents really try to protect their children from their worries, but children are very intuitive and they can sense the stress the family is dealing with.
I really want people to know that young people probably know more than you think they know - never underestimate how much they pick up on. By not talking about things that are causing worries, anxieties can fester and become bigger and scarier, especially when you’re talking about teenagers,” Polly said.
In a recent Barnardo’s survey, the rising impact of the cost-of-living crisis on child mental health was also seen with a 12% increase in respondents feeling stressed compared to a year previously. Many children and young people told us that cost was a limiting factor in their ability to access mental health services like counselling, particularly when waiting lists for mental health support can be so long.
What can parents or caregivers do to support their children with their mental health to avoid them reaching a crisis point?
“I wholeheartedly support parents and caregivers having open and honest conversations with their children about the things that might be worrying them or causing them stress – be that social media, their experience at school, or anything else.
It can be tricky having these kinds of conversations with teenagers especially, as adolescence is a big period of change for kids, and parents should definitely feel that they can reach out to schools to see what mental health support they have that can help as well.
If you’re noticing that your child is becoming more withdrawn, or is being more secretive with their phone, or is acting differently and you can’t think of a reason why – be curious about what’s going on. It’s always a good idea to ask questions that invite conversations with young people instead of assuming everything is always fine, when maybe it isn’t,” Polly said.