Children & Young People Opinion

How can we help children in mental health crisis?

Emily Aklan, Founder & CEO of Serenity Welfare

Emily Aklan is Founder & CEO of Serenity Welfare, a children’s welfare provider offering a range of services from secure transport to crisis intervention.  With the effects of the pandemic undoubtedly impacting on the wellbeing of children, there has never been a time when promoting good mental health of children in care has been so important.  Care Talk caught up with Emily to find out how a child-centred approach can be practically and successfully applied to children suffering from mental health problems. 

The pandemic has had a hard impact on cared-for children’s mental health, as it has on all children, what can the industry be doing right now to help children in a mental health crisis?

The fallout from the pandemic has, and will continue to, hit vulnerable children and young people in care the hardest causing increases in self-harm, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders. Social distancing measures and lockdowns have caused a massive uproot of routine and lack of support, so it’s vital for care workers to bring as much structure as possible to young people’s days, and ensure there is sufficient time dedicated to mentoring to support their emotional and mental needs.

How can we best support children in care’s mental health as we navigate the path back to normal life?

When the lockdown restrictions end, new mental health issues will present themselves. I predict that we’ll see forms of agoraphobia, social anxiety, and depression when children and young people can start socialising as normal. Children’s brains are still developing, they have missed crucial social interactions to build their emotional skills. Relationships from last year may have fizzled out or drastically changed, so we need to ensure that we are checking in on the health of children’s social lives and dexterity.

What long-term impacts do you see as a consequence of the past year?

As well as the mental health impacts mentioned above, something which I believe we must be vigilant of is cuts to government spending on children in care. With an economic recession looming, austerity is simply not an option when it comes to ensuring children and young people in care receive quality care.

We are already seeing these issues – we’re taking in the most vulnerable, suicidal young people with no funding. We have no option, we can’t just turn them away when they need us the most! But if this is the state now, we have to push for funding not to be cut any further with the blame placed on the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, what was the biggest issue influencing the mental health of children in care?

In a pre-pandemic world, cared for young people were having to deal with childhood trauma from unstable, and sometimes violent and neglectful backgrounds. However, the biggest issue they were facing – with a certain chance of destroying their mental health – was their increased risk of gang exploitation. County lines gangs are increasingly targeting children in care – some as young as eight years old – using deceitful recruitment techniques to trap a child into a life of crime.

Children in care may slip out of focus in the wider discussion on young people’s mental health, what effect do you think this has?

Unfortunately, this really does seem to be the case. When you search for news stories on children’s mental health, the majority of articles are based on the assumption that the children in question have parents and a stable home life. This is incredibly dangerous for two reasons: firstly, young people in care are more prone to developing mental health problems and, secondly, it re-enforces a cycle of cared for children being left out of important national discussions which are so necessary when pushing for much-needed government funding. If nobody’s talking about and remembering children in care, they won’t be a political priority – which is why we have to use our voices and push for inclusion at every opportunity.

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