Post-pandemic mental health of children & young people: Three projects paving the way in Scotland

| Rachel Berry

Mental health can be hugely challenging for children and young people. The Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) says that, by the time they’re 16, three children in every classroom will have experienced a mental health problem. And post-pandemic, those working with children and young people identify one issue as presenting more commonly than any other: anxiety. In Scotland, the NHS Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), schools and charities are working in partnership to meet children and young people where they are and to help them deal with the mental health challenges they face. Rachel Berry hears from three projects making a difference in Scotland.

In the classroom

In East Dunbartonshire, Boclair Academy has been piloting an online mental health resource tooklit developed by the Mental Health Foundation with staff. Depute Head Teacher Clare Morgan has championed the project as part of a whole school approach to mental health. “When children returned to school after lockdown, we wanted to make sure it was a familiar and safe space where they were welcome,” Clare explains. “We wanted to say come as you are, and we’ll try our best to support you, wherever you’re at.”

Supporting pupils’ mental health has been a priority for the school over many years, meaning that they were well prepared to deal with the mental health challenges the pandemic has provoked. “We’ve done a lot of work over the last seven years on various aspects of understanding young people and how they’re presenting,” says Clare. “For example, our staff have trained as mental health first aiders, and have learnt about things like trauma, stress response and attachment styles, and how these can impact mental health.”

The Schools Resource Toolkit is a free resource delivering training on key mental health topics and featuring subject matter experts like Dr Bruce Perry and Dr Brené Brown. Clare introduced the resource to staff in October 2021, and it’s already having an impact in the classroom. “I knew it was something really special as a resource for teachers,” she says. “It’s really user-friendly and flexible, allowing you to go over topics – like brain function, for example, or what happens when you feel stress – at your own pace. 

“A lot of the issues it covers are ones we encounter day to day. When you’re able to delve a bit deeper, it means you feel more empowered to help young people in the classroom. The language that staff are using and the way they’re working with young people is definitely much more compassionate and understanding. We try to create an environment that’s calm, where pupils can just concentrate on their learning. This resource is helping us to achieve that.”

“There’s a lot of anxiety and stress. Young people have suffered loss in different ways; loss of connection, loss of normality, loss of learning, school, friends. We’re all wired for connection, so the lockdowns – those periods of isolation – are going to have an impact on mental health.” 

Clare Morgan, Depute Head Teacher, Boclair Academy, East Dunbartonshire.

In the community

Since it was founded in 2004, Shetland-based mental health charity Mind Your Head has built up a trusted reputation in the local community. The charity realised there was a gap in mental health support provision for children and young people in Shetland. Following a successful funding bid, it’s now running a pilot mental health and wellness service for that age group.

“This pilot offers an early intervention service around mental health and wellbeing,” says Anouska Civico, Mind Your Head’s Chief Executive Officer. “Following the pandemic, there’s a real keenness and lots of multi-agency working to deliver that early intervention care, so people can get support before they reach a crisis point.” The pilot service provides support through talking, signposting to other services and helping young people build confidence and social connection. Wellness practitioners connect with service users in the way most appropriate for them; as well as face-to-face meetings, they offer support via Whatsapp, email or Skype. 

“It’s not set in stone that support must look a certain way. It’s very much user-led” Anouska explains. “There’s no time limit for how long we’ll work with someone. At the end of the pilot, we’ll be able to get a sense of what support could look like going forward; what the key issues are here and what frequency people need.” As well as practitioners tailoring the service to the individual users, Anouska says Mind Your Head will be looking to involve young people in an advisory capacity, helping shape services going forward. Beyond the 12-month pilot period, Anouska anticipates that the service will continue, and that co-production will remain an essential component in delivering bespoke support.

Our communities are re-opening and we’re all struggling with what’s expected of us socially. We’re seeing a lot of anxiety among the children and young people who are being referred to us.” 

Anouska Civico, Chief Executive Officer, Mind Your Head, Shetland.

But mental health support isn’t something that can only come from formal services. “One of the things we’re trying to encourage at a young age and in adults as well is about just having a conversation; asking a friend how they feel and actually listening for the response,” says Anouska. “The pandemic has helped us all realise that we’re not the only ones who can feel vulnerable. We’re all only human and can only put up with so much. Mind Your Head wants to encourage people to speak openly with each other, whoever they’re comfortable with. That’s not necessarily a service provider; it might be a neighbour, a friend, or a parent, but we’ve all got someone that we’d tell how we’re feeling. And often, all you need to know is that someone else has felt the way you’re feeling, too.”

On the waves

“There’s a lot of pressures on kids at the moment. The pandemic caused a lot of anxiety. After the lockdowns, kids we knew well were coming back to surf club and had lost a huge amount of confidence.”

Alison Young, Scotland Co-ordinator, The Wave Project, Dunbar. 

The Wave Project has been offering surf therapy in Dunbar, East Lothian since 2014. The charity runs six-week, evidence-based surfing courses in Belhaven Bay for children and young people aged 8 to 18. Young people referred to the charity face a range of physical and mental challenges, from cancer, to learning disabilities, to bullying and social isolation. 

Alison says the magic of this alternative therapy programme is the 1:1 volunteer – participant ratio. “Some of our kids don’t have an adult that is emotionally available to them, to even just talk to,” she explains. “What we provide is a safe, positive environment for kids to just be. The surfing itself is thrilling; it’s a risk but a controlled risk. The adrenaline is flowing and the kids get a real sense of accomplishment. But we’re surfer-led; if the child doesn’t want to go into the water, that’s fine. We’re giving them a couple of hours away from what’s going on in their lives.”

Courses are evaluated through questionnaires based on the Stirling Children’s Wellbeing Scale, and the feedback demonstrates how surf therapy has a positive impact on health and wellbeing. “You don’t think a few hours in the water could make a difference in these kid’s lives,” says Alison. “We see kids roll up in week one who are so nervous. But over the six weeks, we can see the difference right there on the beach and through our evaluations: the children reach the end of our courses feeling happier and more confident. We’re a surf therapy charity, but surfing’s just the vehicle we use. What’s really important is connection and providing a safe environment where kids can come and be themselves. Everybody feels better coming out of the water than they did when they went in.”

Find out more

The Wave Project

Mind Your Head

Boclair Academy

Photo credit: David Hogg

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