Early Support Hubs are centres that offer ease of access, drop-in mental health support for children and young people in need. Aaron Sefi, chief research officer at the mental health digital platform, Kooth, discusses the role that Early Support Hubs play in addressing mental distress and how they could be better utilised when combined with digital platforms.

Supporting young people with their mental health and wellbeing has never been more critical. This is why it is vital that we wholeheartedly back the #FundTheHub campaign - we firmly believe that Early Support Hubs are an essential part of the care and support ecosystem.

From my experience, the likes of 42nd Street in Manchester, Off The Record in Bristol, and YPAS in Liverpool are prime examples of safe, physical spaces that can be accessed by young people without a referral or having to navigate the health system. They provide invaluable support for those in the local area looking for advice and information on mental health issues or concerns.

The best Early Support Hubs I have seen offer a place where young people can quite simply grab a drink, take a seat, and offer a welcoming space to mull over what has happened to them – that is causing upset or concern – over the last few hours, day, week or month. And if they need it, there's someone on hand – trained professionals with a range of backgrounds and approaches – that they can talk to about it.

Breaking down barriers with blended support options

Providing these hubs is an excellent response to the limited opportunity that statutory health services provide – every person is an individual with differing needs and wants. This is why there is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to providing services to address young people's mental health and wellbeing needs – choice and diversity in how people access mental health support must be embraced. It also needs to be available and accessible to them 24/7 – never more so during the global pandemic, where those looking for mental health support turned to digital services. In fact, Kooth experienced a 42% upsurge in children and young person users accessing the platform for support and advice during that period than the previous year.

As we move out of full lockdown, many young people may crave the experience of being out of the home and meeting face-to-face. But others will still feel more comfortable with the anonymous and quickly accessible support that digital can provide.

Digital services, such as Kooth, will always try but will never recreate the wonderful physical spaces online that Early Support Hubs provide. But over the past 15 years, these platforms have created a positive virtual ecosystem. In this digital hub, young people can access different types of support at different times and for various requirements. They provide a safe and confidential way to access emotional wellbeing and early intervention mental health support options under one digital-roof, from one-to-one anonymous counselling sessions and instant text-based chat options to peer-to-peer support via pre-moderated discussion forums and the ability to contribute to – self-help content, including magazines with wellbeing articles, personal experiences and tips from other users and trained, clinical professionals. They also offer young people the opportunity to write in a daily journal to track feelings or emotions and promote positive mental health and wellbeing.

Ensuring young people have access to 24/7 mental health support

As trusted and proven partners of the NHS, Kooth continues to play an essential role in providing mental health support, before, in addition to, and in some cases instead of - for example, when support is needed out of hours and/or at home – Early Support Hubs. But imagine the possibilities if we worked even closer together – something we would embrace with gusto.

By embedding digital services within Early Support Hubs, young people could walk in, wander around, and choose to book a counselling or support session. Or if they want the welcoming feeling Early Support Hubs can provide, but don't want to talk to someone, they can log into a laptop and access anonymous support in a way they may feel more comfortable. They can then take that support home with them – and access it on their chosen digital device.

It would be fair to say that getting support via digital is not for everyone, but I think most people recognise now that neither is face to face. But by working together and by running in collaboration, Early Support Hubs and digital mental health platforms can ensure young people have access to the 24/7 support they need – when, where, and how they need it. All we need now is long-term funding, and with the government's commitment to focusing on young people's mental health, surely, it's not too much to ask.