Young woman looks out of the window.

For young people, there has never been a more crucial time for mental health support

We can all recall being young: standing on the precipice of adulthood but still firmly in the grips of adolescence, experiencing euphoric highs and shattering lows. Being a teenager is embarrassing, exhilarating, all-consuming. It’s a universal experience – but many of the vulnerable young people we meet at Centrepoint are dealing with far more isolating issues on top of navigating the perils of youth. 

We are there for homeless young people, no matter their circumstances – but with a pandemic that currently shows no signs of easing, it has made the route to youth homelessness much easier and reaching vulnerable young people far harder.

Despite the eviction ban, the last year has seen many young people finding themselves without somewhere secure to stay – it’s likely that many of these are hidden homeless, who could no longer stay with friends and family because of the risk of infection. As the pandemic raged on those numbers rose exponentially, leaving young people terrified and with no one to turn to. As such, calls to our Helpline hit an all-time high, rising by 50%.

From those working within Centrepoint’s hostels and those providing floating support and outreach services to young people outside of Centrepoint, the impact of Covid-19 on homeless young people’s mental health is palpable. Our referrals in the past year have risen by 40%, and many of our young people cope with mental health issues – around 30% have formal diagnoses, but the actual number of those suffering with poor mental health is much higher.

Coinciding with a sharp spike in mental health crises is a similarly stark nosedive in support: social distancing and safety measures mean that in the UK there is little or no face-to-face mental health support available. In response to the pandemic, services were asked to free up bed space in order to reduce the risk of infection; as a result, 2,441 more people were discharged from mental health hospitals in March 2020 than in the month previous.

At Centrepoint, in order to provide the best level of support we can without face-to-face contact, we have also had to pivot to virtual support, supplying young people with the technology that allows them a good level of contact with their support network. “Our work with young people now takes place through a variety of mediums, including WhatsApp, Skype, and phone calls,” says Sue, Senior Health & Wellbeing Programme Manager. “We have also produced a significant plan on these new ways of working that would still satisfy our ethical frameworks and professional guidelines.”

Mental health support is complex and nuanced; it requires dedication and concentration. But this is the power of our health team at Centrepoint: no matter how complex the mental health needs of the young person, we are able to provide the support they need to regain control of their lives and move on from homelessness. We must admit, however, that providing that care can be a struggle: the health team’s capacity to provide urgent mental health support is stretched to its limits. They work hard to maintain a sense of normalcy for young people, but the days are long, and the road to recovery is never a straight line. Waiting times for a referral used to be two-three weeks; it is now two months.

Our health team – made up of clinicians, psychotherapists, dieticians and advisors – are such an integral part of Centrepoint, as most young people we encounter are extremely vulnerable. Some are dealing with past trauma from childhood or more recent trauma that has transpired from sleeping rough. Many have undiagnosed mental health issues. Support for substance abuse, therapy for trauma, and healthy relationships counselling are all key to helping young people move on from the cycle of homelessness.

Ramona* suffers with borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder and was sectioned when she was just 11. Her disorder, then undiagnosed, made her vulnerable and she ended up in an abusive relationship at 15. It wasn’t until she was arrested for getting involved in county lines (which offered her a level of protection from her ex) that she was able to receive a formal diagnosis.

“It’s taken me a long time to get here where I am now. The person I was three years ago was really ill. When I was younger, everyone just used to say that I was faking it. But it turns out that I really did need support.”

Luckily, along with her local authority, Centrepoint were able to step in and help Ramona, who went on to go to college and study for her Medical Sciences BTEC.

We want to help turn things around for more people like Ramona – to provide more long-term support for those with complex needs, and extend our help to those who are most out of our reach right now by utilising more virtual support services. This way, we can ensure that young people go on to live independent, and perhaps most importantly, happy lives.

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