It’s good news that mental health in general, and children’s mental health in particular, is being given increasing attention by the media and greater consideration by policymakers. Yet the mental health and wellbeing of children in care is too often marginalised in these debates. More than 70% of children in care have been diagnosed with mental health problems. Perhaps you just assume that it goes with the territory and there’s not much that can be done about it. This is absolutely not the case.
The Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie) has started a new project, commissioned by the departments of health and education, to ensure that children in care have access to high-quality services, based on a clear assessment of need, from a range of professionals working across different agencies. The project is likely to suggest significant changes to the way assessments are conducted for children in care, which could have a big impact on up to 70,000 care-experienced children and young people.
As part of the project, we have put together an expert group that combines knowledge of experienced professionals across the health, social care, academic and voluntary sectors. Crucially, young people who use these services are being given equal billing.
One of the most exciting things about our project is the involvement of children and young people in care, as well as those who have recently left care, in our consultation process. In total we will hear from more than 100 young people and 400 other service users to ensure the working group’s recommendations will be founded on the evidence of those with first-hand experience of the system.
This means we’re speaking to people like Matt Langsford, who was in care until recently and was as keen as healthcare professionals in the group to point out that attending to children’s mental health and wellbeing shouldn’t just mean dealing with crisis situations. “If you get a slapdash service at an early stage,” he says, “it won’t be more than a few months before you’re back in a crisis situation.”
The causes of mental ill health for children in care are complex. These young people have often experienced trauma, maltreatment and perhaps exposure to drugs and alcohol. This is rarely a one-off occurrence. It is a daily reality for these children and at Scie we believe that no one is better placed than the children themselves to highlight where mental health services are working to help with this and identify where they need improving.
The expert group’s professionals are learning much from our experts-by-experience and vice versa. One foster carer reports that every young person who has come to him has had a tough experience and believes that support services are not doing enough to help them. A clinical psychologist has talked about too many “messy systems” that don’t communicate with each other, leaving the child in care confused and feeling that their voice isn’t being heard.
The experts-by-experience, meanwhile, are helping the group to establish practical outcomes and identify concrete milestones. We don’t want our project to produce just another dust-gathering policy document. We want to reach commissioners, professionals, providers and advocates, as well as policymakers.
By October 2017, the group will report its final recommendations, which will include clearer guidance for professionals working with children in care and better information for children and young people themselves. What makes this project unique is the pooling of expertise that will enable real insight and transformation in the way we approach mental health services for children in care.
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