Barnardo’s calls on the Government to provide the ‘missing link’ in youth mental health support.

Published on
10 October 2023

Children’s charity Barnardo’s is calling for the introduction of a national strategy for social prescribing to help tackle the spiralling youth mental health crisis in the UK. 

Currently around 1.4 million people under the age of 19 have a probable mental health disorder.1 In its new report ‘The Missing Link – Social Prescribing for Children and Young People’ Barnardo’s outlines how social prescribing, with adequate funding, could make a real difference to the mental health of children and young people as part of a range of sustainable options to suit a person’s specific needs.   

The charity is highlighting this on World Mental Health Day (10 October). 

Social prescribing is a non-clinical treatment option which connects children to help with mild but complex mental health issues. A referral for social prescribing can be made by various agencies including a GP, local authority or a teacher so that organisations, including Barnardo’s can match children with the right services to suit their needs. Such services are then prescribed to help prevent and provide early intervention for conditions including isolation, anxiety and low self-esteem. 

The new Barnardo’s report highlights the need for social prescribing services on a national scale to help children and young people with their mental health by nurturing self-confidence and developing a sense of belonging. Each young person would be referred to a Link worker, who would offer them emotional support, identify the right services, coordinate what support is needed and assist with logistics including costs and transport to take part in activities. 

Lynn Perry MBE, CEO of Barnardo’s, said: “Children and young people are having to wait for months – even years, in many cases – to get the help and support they need when they are struggling with their mental health. Their condition often just intensifies whilst their names sit on long waiting lists.  

“Social prescribing connects children with community-based activities like walking outside and developing creative skills, which can help improve wellbeing and stop things escalating.  

“We know through our own frontline work that for a group of children and young people who are struggling, this can really help to turn their lives around, and means they don’t go on to need clinical NHS services. That’s why we’re calling on the Government to put the backbones of funding and infrastructure in place to ensure social prescribing is available to all children and young people who need it throughout the country.” 

Barnardo’s LINK service in Cumbria is the largest voluntary sector led social prescribing service for children and young people in England. Following a referral from a GP, healthcare professional, school or community group, a young person is assigned a Link worker. They can then work together to find the right support. An external evaluation in 2020-21 found that the LINK service has helped to boost people’s confidence and emotional resilience whilst improving relationships and reducing isolation2

Mum Kathryn Ridley and child Beth, 14, from Penrith used the LINK service just ahead of the Covid pandemic in 2020, when Beth was struggling with mental health and gender identity. They were having panic attacks, hallucinations, were struggling with the demands of school and had begun self-harming. Beth was referred to CAMHS but didn’t meet the strict criteria for help. During lockdown, Beth felt worse and became increasingly isolated, which made returning to the classroom difficult and they missed a lot of classes.  

Following a referral from the GP, the family were contacted by LINK for a chat and assessment. Their Link worker, Lucy, arranged counselling, put the family in touch with organisations that could help Beth and liaised with the school to ensure their workload and time commitments were manageable.  

Kath said: “It was a horrible time. Beth frequently said that they didn’t want to be here anymore. I was trying to be strong, and people were telling me that I should just make Beth go to school. But their mental health was severely suffering so we had to focus on what was the most important at that time. 

“The LINK service started to put things into place. They fought for us to have ways to manage what was happening and they also checked in on how I was doing too. This really was a lifeline for us. It has taken some time but now I feel like I have my child back – this is who Beth is and I wouldn’t change that for the world.  

“The LINK service saved Beth’s life. Lucy was an absolute advocate for Beth and was someone we could open up to as well as providing the help we needed. This sort of support should be available to everyone – Beth is not in a minority for feeling this way. Children are under so much pressure these days and it easily takes its toll.” 

The Barnardo’s report demonstrates how every £1 spent on social prescribing delivers long-term benefits of around £1.80 through the positive impact it can have on mental health. This in turn reduces the strain and expense of existing mental health services which then has the potential to reduce indirect impacts of poor mental health, including incidents of anti-social behaviour, A&E hospital presentations, housing problems, children being taken into care and truancy from school. 

The report also found that, as local authority budgets have been slashed, many services for children and young people have been cut - leaving them with nowhere to go to help combat issues such as isolation, anxiety and self-confidence. Barnardo’s wants local organisations, including voluntary, community and faith groups, to be properly funded by local authorities and relevant agencies, to provide youth services which can be referred to as part of a social prescription.     

Charlotte Osborn-Forde, Chief Executive of the National Academy for Social Prescribing, which is backing The Missing Link report said:  

“Social prescribing can make a huge difference to young people who are struggling with their mental health, by connecting them to non-medical support. Link workers have time to understand young people’s needs and what matters to them, and then work with them to create a personalised plan.  
“Whether it’s ensuring a young person gets practical assistance with housing and addiction or helping them take up an activity that gives them hope, it can change lives. Developing and rolling out social prescribing for young people more widely could have a big impact, both for those individuals and the wider system.” 

Yet, there is a huge gap in service provision. A survey of Barnardo’s nearly 500 practitioners in February this year found that 87% reported an increase in children and young people experiencing issues with their mental health and wellbeing. In addition, only 8% believed that children and young people have enough access to sport, leisure and creative activities to support their wellbeing - with 82% believing children and young people lacked such access and opportunity. Also, 93% of practitioners believed that expansion of social prescribing services for children and young people would have some or a big positive impact on their health and wellbeing. 

Find out more about Kath and Beth’s story here.  

Find out more about LINK here. 

Notes to editors  

The Missing Link report can be found here. 

  1. The Children’s Commissioner, 2023; Children’s Mental Health Services 2021-22  

  2. Lynch, 2021: Impact Evaluation for the LINK Project (Barnardo’s Cumbria) September 2020 - August 2021. Copy available on request.   

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