Whether it’s children taking their first steps into the playground or young adults getting their first foothold on the career ladder, protecting their mental health and wellbeing is a huge focus for Gloucestershire’s integrated care system (ICS).
The county has been successful in attracting significant investment in recent years and is leading the way nationally when it comes to looking after the mental health of its younger residents.
From coaching schools to be mental health champions to supporting worried teenagers and their families, the emphasis is on early intervention and awareness, helping children and young people to be in touch with their feelings from their very first days at school.
Helen Ford, Integrated Care System Lead for Children’s Mental Health, explains: “One of the strongest messages we’d continually receive from stakeholders was that there was not enough focus on early intervention. We had the systems in place to help when people were already in crisis, but we knew we needed to increase our focus on stopping problems before they start.”
Since 2016 a real emphasis has been placed on tackling this issue – putting it at the forefront of everyone’s agenda, whether that be the NHS, schools, local authorities, the voluntary sector or the police.
One of the biggest pieces of work has involved schools, with an emphasis on developing a “whole school approach” to mental health – something which is exemplified by the county’s successful Mental Health Champions programme.
Schools must complete a range of tasks to show they are putting the mental health and wellbeing of all pupils, staff and parents at the heart of all they do. So far 41 schools have achieved the award, and a total of 87% have either gained accreditation or are currently working towards it.
Fiona Quan, Gloucestershire County Council’s Lead for Health and Wellbeing (Education and Learning), said: “We work very closely with the schools to look across their whole community. It’s a very holistic approach.”
Schools use the information from Gloucestershire’s annual online pupil survey to help determine areas of need.
Fiona said: “For example, a school may see that they score worse than the county average for self-harm and decide to provide an intervention around self-harm, whether it be a specialist coming in to give a talk or a full term of activities promoting awareness and how to get help.”
Other schools have created quiet zones in their play areas, while one has installed a “buddy bench” where children can sit if they feel a bit low or sad and want someone to talk to.
“Feedback on the programme has been overwhelming,” Fiona said. “Teachers are reporting the number of incidents recorded during playtimes falling dramatically. Because they are approaching behaviour in a totally different way, it’s having a massive impact.”
The ICS’ next step is to develop four dedicated mental health teams, which will include qualified health practitioners and representatives from voluntary and community services, going in to schools on a regular basis, providing one clear point of contact for staff and students. The aim is to be covering 32,000 pupils at 72 educational establishments – a mixture of schools, colleges and special schools – by the end of this year (2019).
Away from schools and colleges, the county has also been working hard to develop a number of other resources including a dedicated website and online and face-to-face counselling.
The On Your Mind website is free and confidential and has access to information on a range of different mental health issues. Since its launch in 2016 it’s had over 20,000 unique visitors.
Expanding the amount of counselling available has also been key. Working with the charity TIC+, an online counselling platform has been developed, as well as face-to-face sessions. Since 2017, more than 1,700 children and young people – aged nine to 21 – have benefited from the charity’s help.
Judith Bell, the charity’s Director of Counselling Services, said: “It can be extremely difficult to open up to a stranger you’ve never met before, but what we find is that a lot of young people who start with the online option then become confident enough to start trying face-to-face sessions.”
A parent advice line has also proved a huge hit, helping around 120 parents/carers since April.
Judith said: “More than half the referrals to our service are from parents or carers concerned about a child’s wellbeing. Often when they ring our team they can be in a real state of distress. It might be the first time they’ve opened up to anybody and they just really don’t know what to do.”
The impact the counselling has on both parents and young people is undeniable, with the service receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback.
One parent said: “It’s about someone listening when you feel like doors are shut everywhere. It takes away that feeling of being alone.”
Will, 21, received counselling after struggling with low mood throughout his teens.
He said: “The counsellor I saw was so non-judgemental and showed incredible compassion. They made me realise how hard I was on myself and taught me to be much more emotionally aware.”
Will has since gone on to travel the world and is currently part way through a clinical psychology course at university – a decision inspired by his experiences with TIC+.
He said: “It’s definitely helped to change my life and give me the confidence to be where I am today.”