This week YoungMinds launched a report 'Improving the mental health of Looked After Young People'. The report feels incredibly timely given the announcement last week from Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) showing that in January 2012 a record number of children were taken into care.
According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) around 60% of Looked after Young People have some level of mental health problem and in addition are often amongst the most marginalised in society. Given the traumas and the emotional turbulence that these young people go through, is it any wonder that the level of mental health problems are so high?
YoungMinds report funded by the Network for Social Change is based on our work with 50 young people from residential homes, secure settings and foster placements where we ran creative workshops focussing on the areas of placements, education and support services.
When children have no experience of a trusting relationship with an adult and are frequently moved from placement to placement the emotional trauma is immense. We shouldn't be surprised when this emotional trauma occasionally spills out into anger and violence. Too often when these pent up feelings of rage are displayed services reach for behaviour enforcement rather than seeking to understand and support the child.
The poet Lemn Sissay at a seminar launching the report at the Imagine Children's Festival said that he thought far too much service provision was centred around protecting institutions rather than the wellbeing of the child. He gave the example of how hard it was for a young person to visit a child in care. What could be more important to a child's wellbeing than developing a friendship with possibly someone outside the care system for the first time?
It must be remembered that the report is a snapshot of young people's views but some striking themes do present themselves. In school, many young people said they felt that they identified as disruptive at school and they did not feel that their emotional needs were understood or that they could talk about their emotional needs at school, especially because staff did not have experience of the care system.
Often looked after young people present themselves in very different ways to how they are feeling on the inside. Our work examined with young people how they acted and how they felt about being in care. They would present themselves frequently as 'tough' and 'strong' but what they felt on the inside was 'scared' and 'vulnerable'. Imagine bottling up all those strong emotions and never being able to trust people enough to confide in them your true feelings. Again it is no wonder how many Looked after Young People have some level of mental health problems.
One of the most frequent pieces of feedback that participants stated over and over again was that they are tired of telling their peers 'I'm not like Tracy Beaker'. Tracy Beaker is seen as a positive role model for looked after young people however many young people felt that was the only representation of children in care on television. This strikes at a key recommendation of the report that there needs to be a much wider understanding of what it means to be a looked after young person, the traumas they have been through and the need to provide timely and effective support.