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Children’s Mental Health Week: Bridging the loneliness gap in young people

2nd February 2023 by Jamie Masraff, Chief Executive, OnSide

As someone who’s had my share of struggles with anxiety, I know the debilitating effect mental health challenges can have. That’s why I believe passionately in addressing the difficulty young people face when accessing mental health support. As this week is Children’s Mental Health Week, there has never been a more critical time to raise awareness and debate about how society supports young people’s mental health

survey of 13,887 young people found that more than one in four had tried to take their own life because they had to wait to receive mental health help. This heart-breaking account by a mother of her son’s experience of trying to access mental health support in The Guardian brings this urgent issue to life. Right now, young people must be in crisis to access proper support, a point that will be too late for many. This is not acceptable.

We’re all aware of how under pressure our NHS is and the challenges around waiting times. However, regardless of these wider pressures, more care urgently needs to be available to support young people when needed at any stage, not when they’re at the sharp end of a mental health crisis.

Place2Be (the organisation behind Children’s Mental Health Week) has chosen ‘connection’ as this year’s theme, bringing to life how vital connections can be to help support good mental health. Social isolation and loneliness have proven to negatively impact both physical and mental health – with research suggesting that those who experience loneliness are more prone to depression and have an increased likelihood of early death.

By contrast, good quality supportive relationships with others massively reduces the risk of depression, as shown by Cambridge University’s research into the impact of lockdowns. The most supported had an 85% lower chance of depression than the least supported. With 50% of mental health problems established by age 14, we must create opportunities for young people to connect from a young age.

Whilst loneliness is typically associated with older people, it’s a myth to think they are the only group affected, or even the most affected. In fact, it’s younger people who are most likely to experience loneliness, with 88% of Britons aged 18 to 24 said they experience loneliness to some degree, compared to 70% of those over 55.

Onside’s recently published research, Generation Isolation, supports this. We surveyed 5,000 young people aged 11-18, and the findings painted a stark picture of a generation of young people whose lives are increasingly isolated, and screen based.

19% of young people told us they spend most of their free time alone, over half spend most of their free time in their bedrooms, and 73% spend most of their free time on screens.

There isn’t a straightforward solution to this. Still, one part of the puzzle must be how effectively we can provide young people with appealing opportunities to connect meaningfully with friends and trusted adults in real life. Youth workers and youth centres have a critical role in making this happen.

Go into an Onside Youth Zone near you any night of the week, and you will see young people engaged in a range of activities with youth workers; whether playing pool, a quiet game of cards or a frantic game of basketball. But look a little closer. You soon realise these activities create the foundations for vital conversation and support.

A simple ‘how’s it going?’ leads to young people opening up about the good and bad parts of their day, to feeling understood, forming connections and understanding the true values of youth work.

That’s the power of youth and community work; it’s meeting young people where they are and listening to them, day in and day out, helping them make sense of themselves in the world, and empowering them to navigate the ever-trickier path to adulthood. You can see from Ellie’s story, a member at Inspire, Chorley Youth Zone how important connections with youth workers are for mental health.

There isn’t a single answer, and I’m not suggesting that youth centres and youth work is the sole answer, but they certainly need to be part of it. If we want to raise a generation with positive mental health, ready to face the challenges of the future, we need to do the work to support them now – and with the help of charities and awareness weeks like Children’s Mental Health Week, the future already looks brighter.