News that Prince Harry sought counselling to deal with the grief of losing his mother 20 years ago has been heralded as an important step in breaking the stigma of mental health. But while he and his brother have been quick to praise the support they have received, many young people are not getting the counselling and support they need, particularly those living in care.
According to the World Health Organisation, 450 million people suffer from mental health issues and one in four of us will be affected at some point in our lives. For children and young people in care it is an even greater reality, as they are four times more likely to experience mental health problems. Issues can include depression, anxiety and eating disorders and these are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives.
While Prince Harry’s decision to speak out about managing his grief shows that no one, no matter how famous, powerful or rich is exempt, it also reiterates the importance of effective support networks and a listening ear in giving children and young people an opportunity to work through their feelings.
Figures from the Mental Health Foundation reveal, quite alarmingly, that 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. When you consider the amount of disruption, upset and trauma often experienced by children and young people living in care, it’s very likely that this statistic is even higher for looked after children.
It’s widely recognised that being part of a family, feeling loved, trusted valued and safe, being in good health and having a sense of belonging help to keep children and young people mentally well and this gives them the foundation on which to build emotional resilience, self worth, confidence and stability. For those living in situations where these elements are compromised or even absent, far greater support is needed.
Advocacy is a particularly important part of the solution, giving children and young people in care and those in need, which includes children subject to child protection plans, care leavers and those with disabilities, access to an impartial ear that can help to ensure their voices are heard. Whether that’s ensuring their wishes are considered in legal proceedings or helping get access to the right mental health support services, advocates provide an essential level of support and contribute greatly to the emotional and mental wellbeing of children in their care.
Funding positive confidence-building activities, providing access to independent visitors and offering specialist advocacy support to those in care in mental health settings (something that we’re keen to see provided in all mental health units across the country) are just some of the activities that NYAS undertakes in order to put the needs of those in care first. The helpline, which handles thousands of calls each year, the development of the UK’s first advocacy App to make it easier for young people to access help and the creation of films that document the experiences of those in care, are all NYAS initiatives that help to give children and young people a voice. They provide the chance to connect with others, share their experiences and importantly to access the support of professionals.
There is no denying that it is hugely impressive for a young man who is already subject to the world’s gaze to speak out about something so personal and painful as the loss of his mother. While Prince Harry’s words have, in essence, given the green light for mental health to be discussed openly, it’s important to remember that for many children and young people their voices are not heard at all. Not every child has a supportive family, access to professional help or the support of siblings.
It’s NYAS’s aim to create a louder and strong and voice for young people in care by campaigning on their behalf and finding ways to support their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Prince Harry has put mental health firmly on the news agenda – the challenge now is to capitalise on that momentum and ensure that mental health maintains the attention and funding it requires.