Samantha Naik, local Newport resident, is campaigning for better mental health services for young people. She was appalled to discover the lack of NHS provision when she spoke to the manager of Open Door, an independent free counselling service for young people in Uttlesford. The manager has asked to remain anonymous so her name has been changed to Amelia.
SN: Thank you for talking to me. I am interested to know why you set up Open Door?
AMELIA: I was working part time as a youth worker in Uttlesford with Essex County Council when I realised that there were young people who were desperately in need of counselling but they had nowhere to go. I’m the sort of person who likes to take action, so I trained as a counsellor and in 1997 I set up Open Door. We get no statutory funding; instead, we rely on the local community for financial support. Essex County Council supplies us with free accommodation, which helps to ensure that we continue to survive.
SN: What issues did young people bring to Open Door pre-pandemic? Has this changed?
AMELIA: Young people bring us a range of problems – gender issues, relationship problems, self-harming, low self-esteem, bullying, anxiety and depression. And, with this ‘new normal’ of lockdown, we see more young people suffering from isolation, depression, anxiety about the coronavirus, worries about being able to pass exams having missed so much school and some developing the beginnings of agoraphobia. Since the schools re-opened, we have seen a large increase in young people asking us for help.
SN: The reason I’m interested in mental health is because I had some tough experiences as a child and young adult. Can I can talk to you about this now?
AMELIA: Of course, go on.
SN: I was bullied at school. It hurt my feelings and my school work suffered too, so I wish there had been an Open Door for me; the bullies eventually apologised to me, but it was a painful experience.
AMELIA: Yes, unfortunately bullying is a common problem with many of our clients.
SN: And in my teens I experienced bereavement, when my father died suddenly. My other family members were grieving, so I didn’t want to burden them. And I didn’t bother my friends as they were happy and preoccupied with falling in love, clothes, the latest music, or studies. I had no way to express what I was feeling – a confusing mix of strong emotions. I felt completely alone, while surrounded by other people. Eventually I went to my GP for help and I spoke to a counsellor. But I waited too long to ask for help. If I could talk to my teen-self I’d say, ‘you aren’t alone, yes it does hurt, yes it’s difficult expressing feelings, you will be okay, there are many people that care.’ What would you say, to comfort any young people out there, who are feeling distressed and alone, for whatever reason?
Amelia: I would say to remember that you are not alone. Don’t bottle up your feelings. If you feel uneasy talking to family or friends then do get in touch with us at Open Door. We can help you to make sense of distressing feelings and help you to overcome your difficulties.
SN: According to NSPCC, since lockdown, Childline has had a 22 per cent increase in the number of counselling sessions about physical abuse, and there’s been 50% more calls to NSPCC’s helpline. The pandemic has created conditions of stress and physical conflict in some families, and the stay-at-home rules prevented children from escaping from physical abuse. How is Open Door coping with these distressing issues?
AMELIA: We have not actually witnessed an increase in young people suffering as a result of physical or emotional abuse or domestic violence, but this does not mean it is not happening. I hope that the children affected are helped by social services – provided of course that they know about it. With children being out of school, help may not reach those who need it. Our hearts go out to those children who are suffering.
SN: Some children are perceived as ‘beyond help’ and written-off as ‘bad children’. These children are statistically more at risk of exclusion from school. Exclusion leaves them vulnerable to exploitation such as county lines drug involvement. Interestingly, Scotland has an almost zero rate of school exclusion, with policies focused on engagement, social and emotional wellbeing, trust, relationships, and preventing exclusion. Contrasting with England… in Essex, 4 pupils out of every 10,000 are permanently excluded. That’s quite a lot! Temporary exclusions also occur. In England exclusion seems to be used to punish ‘disruptive’ behaviour. Yet, exclusions co-relate with other complexities such as: SEN, ethnic minorities including Roma, refugees, those suffering bereavement or trauma including child abuse, and those on Free School Meals. As a volunteer with a local charity, I’ve seen permanent school exclusion happen here – and it’s a tragedy that hurts life chances. I wonder, can Open Door help children who are in danger of being permanently excluded?
AMELIA: If children are in danger of being permanently excluded from school, then I would suggest they have underlying emotional problems. We would certainly aim to help with these.
SN: What sort of help does Open Door offer – is it a similar service to the NHS?
AMELIA: We provide 12 weeks of free counselling to our clients. Our team of 19 counsellors have trained in a range of therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy, psychodynamic and person-centred counselling.
SN: Do you sometimes refer young people to the NHS?
AMELIA: We do refer young people with serious mental illnesses to the NHS mental health service. However, very often that service refers such clients to us as their waiting lists are so long (months rather than weeks). At Open Door we pride ourselves on being able to see young people within around four weeks – sooner if possible.
SN: Are you satisfied with the levels of funding for mental health in the UK, for young people and families with young children?
AMELIA: Mental health is the poor relation of the NHS. I’m not sure if it is because of underfunding or poor organisation but it has long waiting lists which are completely unsatisfactory, particularly for young people. There also needs to be organised provision to support parents. The system needs to be thoroughly investigated to find where the problems lie.
SN: The stats on Mental Health spending show that only a fraction of the spending is on children. Do you think enough help available for children and young people, for instance in schools? Pupils may ‘act out’ with behavioural issues because they need help.
AMELIA: Schools provide counselling but they lack the funding to offer an adequate service. Most of our referrals come from GPs and schools, with a number of young people self-referring through our website.
SN: How are you finding working at home?
AMELIA: Although during lockdown we have not been able to offer face to face counselling we have found that zoom does have its advantages. It means we can cater for young people in the more isolated and distant parts of Uttlesford. These young people would have found it difficult to get to our premises in Saffron Walden after school and we shall continue to provide remote as well as face to face counselling in the future.
SN: Open Door has done so much. It saddens me that more help is needed. What drives you to continue?
AMELIA: What drives me is the knowledge that there is not another service like ours in the district and that we are providing a lifeline for young people. It is a shame that services like ours have to rely on donations from the community for our survival.
SN: I share your concern, and I want everyone to know about these issues, in our own community. What needs to change?
AMELIA: Years ago, a consultant in the NHS told me there are two things you do not want to be in this country: mentally ill or elderly – and often the two coincide – because the provision is seriously inadequate. From my experience, working with Open Door for more than 20 years, I’d say that provision for young peoples’ mental health continues to be woefully inadequate. I believe there should be an urgent in-depth investigation into the way in which mental health services are delivered. I have a feeling that it might not just be a problem of under-funding but also of organisation.
SN: There’s an annual survey by The Children’s Society that found UK children have the lowest life-satisfaction levels in Europe – this must at least raise the eyebrows of those in Government. Surely the mental health and happiness of our children is important! I want our children’s health to be at the heart of all government decision making. Scotland has few school exclusions, so I’d like to see if we could apply their policies here, to get school exclusions down to zero in Essex. All our children deserve good life chances, so a focus on increasing provision of mental health services and reducing school exclusions seems necessary.
Samantha Naik, 23 April 2021
If you are a young person and you are experiencing difficulties and need someone to talk to about your problems, you can seek help from any of the following places:
Open Door: http://www.open-door.info/ (for people in Uttlesford and the surrounding areas)
Childline tel: 0800 1111 or visit www.childline.org.uk
School Exclusions in England rising, compared with low rates in Scotland and Wales:
Essex stats on exclusions:
Exclusion rates for Black, Gypsy-Travellers, and working-class pupils are disproportionately high (‘PRU to Prison pipeline’)
Children’s Society survey 2020 on UK children being least happy in Europe
Children’s mental health spending is low compared to total spending on mental health: https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/2020/01/30/childrens-mental-health-report-warns-chasm-remains-between-what-services-are-available-and-what-children-need/