Accessing mental health services shouldn’t be a luxury

In National Care Leavers’ Week, we want to shed light onto specific issues which disproportionately affect care-experienced people; from the unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children, to youth mental health, to stigma and discrimination, housing, and to a general lack of training and support for people working in the sector. We passionately believe that children and young people deserve better and that positive change is possible #deservingbetter

Care leavers face particularly complicated challenges when it comes to receiving appropriate support for their emotional health and mental wellbeing. Unlike their peers, many are asked to transition into independence before they feel ready and without the practical and emotional support from their family. This can leave young people feeling lonely and isolated[1]. At such a difficult time, care leavers also have to take on a lot more responsibilities, managing limited finances, navigating the job market and having to apply for their own social housing. Many experience acute episodes of stress and anxiety during this period of uncertainty.

Many care leavers have also experienced adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse and neglect, which can have a significant impact on their mental health. The Children’s charity ‘Barnardo’s’ highlighted the serious legacy of such a challenging upbringing in their 2017 report ‘Neglected Minds’:

“45% of looked after children (and 72% in residential care) have a mental health disorder – compared to 1 in 10 in the general population; and looked after children and care leavers are between four and five times more likely to attempt suicide in adulthood”[2].

When care leavers do look for more help, they face significant difficulties in accessing it. The support offered by CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) normally ends at age 18, leaving some care leavers trying to access therapeutic services through Adult Social Care. However, their thresholds for accepting new referrals are high and without an established diagnosis (which many young people won’t have), they are unable to get a service. When help is offered, it is often accompanied by long waiting lists and subject to time-limited therapy, such as IAPT, delivering CBT over potentially just 6 weeks. A lot of care leavers have not found this approach to meet their needs and wish for alternative provisions. Without access to appropriate mental health support, young people may turn to their personal advisor (allocated to them by a Leaving Care Team) for help. However, contact with their worker may be limited (many workers support 25 other young people) and often workers have very limited or no mental health training.

We passionately believe care leavers deserve better and would benefit from a more holistic approach to improving emotional health and mental wellbeing. This could include a more flexible approach to delivering support services, better training for support workers (PAs) and ensuring every Leaving Care Team has a mental health professional working within the service.

With this in mind, we call for trauma informed training and practice to be implemented for all frontline staff in Leaving Care Teams, a multiagency approach to mental health, and for the CAMHS age to be raised to 25 (with matched funding). 

[1] The children’s rights organisation, Coram highlighted that one in five care-experienced young people regularly feel lonely:

[2] Barnardo’s 2017 report quoting: Children and Young People’s health outcome form “Report on of the Children and Young People’s Health outcome Forum – Mental Health Sub-Group (July 2012) available on line at attachment_data/file/216852/CYP-report.pdf

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