Strength in connection: the transformative power of peer mentoring in children’s mental health

The UK is currently in a mental health crisis. Our system is failing and children are dying. This needs to stop. A 2022 survey (1) revealed that 18% of children ages 7-16 had a probable mental disorder. If not helped these children are more likely to struggle in school, not pursue higher education, get chronic pains, have job instability, be incarcerated and commit suicide (2).

For so many children this does not have to happen, these children have the ability to thrive and they should be given that chance. How dare it be that these children are not given that chance. How dare we let 1000s of young, vulnerable people be without help. This can be prevented, we can stop future generations of people from growing up in an unsupportive system and we need to start today.

There are numerous complex interacting factors which result in children developing poor mental health and while no one is immune there are those that are more at risk. Risk factors include experiencing some form of adversity, such as living in poverty, experiencing violence (especially sexual violence and bullying), parental separation, financial crisis and parents with mental illness(3). Young people who identify as LGBTQ+ are also more likely to suffer from a mental health condition and children in care are four times more likely to experience mental health issues than their peers(4). Other factors that can contribute to stress during adolescence include pressure to conform with peers and the influence of media. Social media can create a false reality which highlights discrepancies between that portrayed and the adolescents’ lived reality. The more risk factors adolescents are exposed to, the greater the potential impact on their mental health. To make it worse, COVID has not helped; 83% of young people with mental health needs agreed that the pandemic had made their mental health worse (5). The reasons are complex, but increased recognition of mental health issues, social isolation and disruptions to home and school routines during the pandemic likely played a role.

One of the ultimate costs to families, society and young people is suicide. Suicide happens when someone feels like they have no other options, and often when they’re not receiving the help they need. When a young person dies it doesn’t just mean that a life has been taken, but there is a huge ripple effect on the people around them. Their friends are more likey to drop out of school, self harm and attempt suicide . And their family are 80% more likely to drop out of work and 65% more likey to commit suicide themselves (6). This will leave a mark on them for the rest of their lives, and the worst thing is, is that this can be prevented.

The way to help mental health is prevention not cure. By focusing on cure we condemn young people to worse issues, long waiting lists and inadequate care. At the moment only just over one in three children and young people with a diagnosable mental health condition get access to NHS care and treatment (7). There are long waits for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and thresholds for entering care are extremely high, it seems you have to literally be at death’s door to get listened to. In a YoungMinds survey (8), three-quarters of parents said that their child’s mental health had deteriorated while waiting for support from CAMHS. I applied for CAMHS for the first time in 2020 but got told it was a six month waiting list because essentially I wasn’t ‘sick enough’. The first time they saw me it was September 2021, and I was in a hospital bed after trying to take my own life. Not only that but the people I saw were patronising and dismissed everything I said. As a young person suffering with mental health I did not feel heard, and I think if I had proper support at that time it would not have taken so long to recover. Furthermore, if I had had support early on, before it got to the point I wanted to take my own life I believe I would have never ended up in that hospital.

The mental health of children and young people accounts for less than 1% of all NHS spending. (7) Alarmingly, this funding has stagnated. Statistics obtained from the local government association, in January 2022 (4), shows that on average, overall spending on children’s mental health is still less than 1 % and 14 times more is spent on adult mental health services. Moreover, funding for school nurses and public mental health services have seen a £700 million real terms reduction in funding between 2014/15 and 2020/21 – a fall of almost a quarter per person. This is not good enough and there needs to be more money put into young people’s mental health. I am aware that there is not much money to spare at the moment, however by putting money into children’s mental health means they’re less likely to need it when they’re older, more likely to contribute greatly to the economy and most importantly we won’t lose lives.

I want there to be a system in place where young people can go to feel supported and seen, and so no one has to go through what I did. The people who I felt helped me the most were my peers, not the qualified mental health professionals, not teachers in my school, but other young people who knew and had felt what I was going through. I want to set up a system where young people can help others in a safe environment where they can talk about their feelings and what’s affecting them.

This is supported by research; studies have found that during adolescents a sense of belonging and acceptance by peers is highly valued (9). The support received from peers is of greater benefit when there is a commonality which includes experiences and age-relatedness (10). Adolescents tend to view their peers as more credible and having a better understanding of their difficulties (11). Young people defined at risk due to their experiences, were found in an Australian study, to have the motivation and ability to effectively provide mentoring to their at-risk peers (12). Professor Peter Fonagy, CEO of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families (AFNCF), said: “Very often children feel better helped by confiding in each other than they do when sharing with adults… Peer support is an often untapped resource to support well-being. We need more of it.” (13)

The AFNCF delivered a pilot on peer mentoring for the department of Education. The outcomes of the pilot were positive; people participating as mentors or mentees self-reported a wide range of improvements relating to their personal development, as well as their knowledge and awareness of mental health issues affecting their peers (14). Training materials to train peer mentors are available from the AFNCF . Training can be delivered over 3 sessions of an hour each. Covering important areas including: how to build effective relationships with your mentees, how to promote change and understanding the role and its limitations.

I agree with Professor Fonagy and my proposal is that the government look at expanding peer mentoring.

I suggest a collaboration with the highly successful established Duke of Edinburgh programme and other charities like the AFNCF. DofE is known to have positive impacts on young people’s mental health and well-being (15). It currently comprises 5 sections, Volunteering, Skills, Physical, Expedition and Residential (gold only). I suggest the addition of a section on Mental Well-being. DofE was last updated in the 1980s and I think it’s time to expand. For Bronze year there can be an extra section about mental well-being awareness, in this participants could sit in 3 classes about mental health issues affecting them and their peers. Silver and Gold year would then be about engaging in peer mentoring using established programs like that developed by the AFNCF. This would help provide the prevention and support young people need, and hopefully reduce the numbers of young children needing to go to camhs.

I have personally reached out to each of these charities highlighting my proposal for a collaboration. But for this to happen I need the government’s support. If they start putting more effort and money into children’s mental health, then other charities may follow suit. For too long children’s mental health has been underrepresented and ignored, this is not something that can continue if we want to progress as a country. I need the government to support adding mental well-being to the DofE program and I need them to put more money into school nurses to help prevent the disastrous effects of mental health. This means there will be less children getting to the point where they need to go to CAMHS and less chance of children feeling like they’re unseen, unheard and unwanted.