Children & Young People Opinion

The implications of mental health problems in care leavers

Harri Helvon-Hardy, Founder of FABRIC

The parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind” — Bessel Van Der Kolk

On the basis of Van Der Kolk’s saying, it is no surprise that statistics on the mental health of children in and leaving care, are disproportionately high to their non care experienced peers.

The topic of care leavers and mental health is not a new concern, it has in fact been noted for decades. Care leavers are 6 times more likely than their peers to suffer mental ill health and 46% of children in care will have a diagnosable health condition.

I would suggest that whilst the issue of care leavers mental health is still an ongoing topic of concern there are identifiable areas of focus that will assist in supporting care leavers’ mental health and that there has been a substantial positive development in the understanding of trauma which could support a decrease in poor outcomes for children in care.


Trauma can be any event that is very stressful, frightening or distressing and when a child is systematically exposed to such events this can have a huge impact on later life, especially if they have never worked through the feelings, emotions and ongoing effects. Anything of this nature can have far reaching effects, with symptoms such as panic attacks, flashbacks, dissociation, sleep problems, low self-esteem or self-harm and substance abuse making the transition to adulthood a difficult one.

Young people leaving care have often lived through some form of trauma and many care leavers can suffer from a range of mental health problems, impacting on issues such as forming healthy attachments to self-harming and substance abuse, which could be linked back to experiencing a difficult start in life.

All of this means that connecting with others, keeping on top of everyday tasks, such as finances, living arrangements and employment can become insurmountable and overwhelm and anxiety levels  heightened, making it difficult to live independently.

There are many worrying statistics that help shine a light on the stark reality that many care leavers face when transitioning to independent living, including:

  • 31% of children leaving care have no qualifications
  • 1 in 4 young people leaving care had faced a mental health crisis since leaving care and 65% of care leavers with mental health needs were not currently receiving any statutory service.
  • Care leavers are 4-5x more likely to attempt suicide in adulthood
  • 26% of prisoners are care-experienced, with 27% of care experienced prisoners having experienced more than six different placements whilst in care
  • One third of care leavers become homeless within the first two years of leaving care and 25% of homeless people are care experienced

Considering the vast array of negative experiences that have bring children into care, it is no surprise that many care leavers struggle with the ongoing impact of trauma. Added to this, the above statistics often mean care leavers have social expectations and unconscious bias adding to low expectations and reduced life chances.

It is no wonder really that any care leaver that has faced trauma is not only subjected to their own self-debilitating thoughts, but also with statistics such as the above, means social expectations and unconscious bias adds another layer of low expectations and reduced life chances.

Protective factors

Care leavers who are transitioning to independent living or those who are no longer under care services are some of the most vulnerable young people in society. They have diminished life chances, are often battling with mental health issues and usually lacking a stable and loving support network.  So why is it that society in general feels it is ok to turn their backs on these young people? Surely, we need further protective factors in place to break this cycle and improve the prospects of these wonderful young people who have so much to offer, if only we allowed them to shine.

Feeling loved, wanted and cared for is possible within a child’s experience of the care system. To be loved is an intrinsic human desire and connectedness with a positive role model can have substantial impact on outcomes for children.

Whilst a positive parent child connection may be gold standard, it is not the only connection that can help elicit positive change for young people. Having a safe secure base from which to address trauma and explore the world is a foundation that will support the trauma recovery and one that can be provided within the care system.

There is a wealth of knowledge developed over recent decades about the impact of trauma on neurobiology and approaches that can lead to positive impact on children and young people in care. It is time for a greater level of training amongst all those in professional roles supporting these young people, from foster carers, residential workers, support workers, teachers and police.

Whilst there is much more that can be done in the professional sector, I feel it is time for all of us to stand up and acknowledge the responsibility we all have for any young person in our society. We need to ask ourselves, are these prospects good enough for our own children and when the resounding answer of ‘no’ is heard start building a better future for every young person, especially the most vulnerable.


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