Mental health awareness is a good thing. Except when it makes us do nothing.
In the depth of lockdown, many of us struggled with mental wellbeing. For children and young people it was particularly tough, with all their structures and relationships affected. Things that were taken for granted were suddenly open to question. Vital connections were lost.
We knew that the impacts on the young people we support would reverberate for many years. But we took comfort in one thing: at least public awareness of children’s mental health had never been higher.
For a charity supporting young people who, even before the effects of lockdown, were facing difficulties in education and home which led to anxiety, low mood and social isolation, it seemed that this greater awareness would be good news.
Our delivery continued at 100% capacity throughout, but our office had to close. The phone was often diverted to my mobile and I had never taken more calls from would-be volunteer mentors. People were coming forward daily saying they wanted to support young people after this experience.
And then lockdowns eased and numbers of volunteers shrank. Compared to pre-pandemic, about half the numbers now come forward to volunteer with us.
It isn’t just us – all our local charity partners are facing the same, and national figures show volunteering numbers are at an all-time low. People are changing jobs, working in different patterns, catching up on missed opportunities, taking extra work to make ends meet. We know all this, and of course we get it.
Beyond these shifts, though, we detect something else. Potential volunteers say they are too afraid of letting young people down. They know how great the need is, and they worry they don’t feel qualified to deal with the difficulties young people are now facing.
And we get this too – the fear of doing more harm than good, the concern that issues young people face are too much for a volunteer to support.
Of course, our model has never required mentors to be qualified. In fact, mentoring works because mentors are different from the professionals children and families work with every day. As well as providing full training and support to mentors, our professionals take care of all the casework with families and other organisations. And we’ve never matched volunteers with young people whose situations are too complex for them to safely support – we have a completely separate service to support young people with higher levels of need.)
All the same, it’s very natural to worry about not being equal to supporting a young person’s mental wellbeing. But this heightened awareness can also, paradoxically, mean we do nothing. People who could make a life-changing impact decide not to give it a go.
What our young people would tell you is that they don’t need a mentor with expertise or qualifications. They don’t need someone with answers.
They do need a kind, consistent, interested adult to offer time and space away from day to day issues. They want to get out and about, have fun and do simple activities like walking a dog, playing a card game or kicking a football while they have a chat.
Even those whose mental health is affecting their schooling, family and friendships don’t need ‘fixing’. They are the experts in themselves. They might benefit from someone asking the right questions, noticing their strengths, reflecting back their progress, but that’s all they need.
This was true before lockdown and it’s no different now. We are better at seeing, naming and discussing mental health difficulties, but fundamentally the needs haven’t changed.
On World Mental Health Day, I just want to offer the reassurance that a kind, consistent, non-expert adult can make a huge difference to a young person struggling with wellbeing.
And it’s a call to action: with so many who could feel happier and more confident with a bit of support, the one thing we cannot do is nothing.
Our 1-1 volunteer mentoring project asks adults to train with us and commit 1-2 hours a week to mentoring a child or teen for up to a year. All travel costs can be claimed plus a budget for refreshments and activities. Mentoring hours are flexible; sessions are mostly delivered in term time and it is expected that mentors will take breaks for holidays etc. Find out more about becoming a volunteer mentor here.