Content warning: This article discusses suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

In her mid-teens, Olivia began suffering from acute anxiety. The problem was exacerbated by horrendous bullying at school, and despite moving to a different area and a different school her mental health issues persisted.

When her symptoms escalated to suicidal thoughts and self-harm Olivia sought help from her GP, but was told that this was “just hormones”. When she was eventually referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) aged 16, she waited 18 months only to be seen by someone who didn’t even acknowledge her, instead speaking directly to her dad, telling him she had been self-harming – the one thing she didn’t want to disclose to her dad at that time.

The mental healthcare system does not listen to young people

Olivia is far from unique. Whether seeking help themselves or being referred for support by teachers and other practitioners, too many young people around the country are waiting excessive amounts of time for statutory mental health services that all too often fall short in meeting their basic needs and expectations. And that’s those who are lucky enough to get support at all. A 2020 report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) showed that in 2019 26% of referrals to CAMHS were rejected – a figure representing around 133,000 children.

The figures were already bad enough before Covid-19 struck, but the pandemic has managed to make things even worse for young people like Olivia. A combination of increasing numbers of young people experiencing mental health issues and reduced access to support services means that without a serious increase in investment – and a new approach to how services are commissioned – a bad situation could soon evolve into a full-on public health emergency.

Community-based organisations are the answer

Fortunately, Olivia’s story has a happy ending. After her difficult CAMHS experience, she finally received support from a community-based organisation providing youth advice and counselling services. She was seen by a counsellor within two weeks of her referral, and also accessed a drop-in service that helped her with her anxiety, depression and eating disorder. The support she received enabled her to overcome many of the mental health issues that had plagued her for years. She reported feeling comfortable with the staff and “knew that I was not just a case number, but someone they cared about.”

The organisation that supported Olivia is part of the solution to the current malaise in youth mental health provision. It is an example of the Youth Information, Advice and Counselling Service (YIACS) model that my charity, Youth Access, has been championing for decades. Based in local communities, these organisations provide young person-centred services tailored to the individual requirements of each young person in their care. They provide simple routes for young people to quickly and easily access services that bridge the gap between childhood and early adulthood, with organisations typically offering support to young people up to the age of 25.

Our Minds Our Future – mental health is a human right

Studies have shown that this model achieves excellent clinical and social developmental outcomes, and – just as importantly – it's exactly what young people tell us that they want. Over the last year, we have been working with young people across England to put together a manifesto outlining what they want mental health services to look like in their communities.

The seven demands they have come up with are ambitious and wide-reaching, from shortening waiting times and designing services together with the young people who use them, to ensuring a “whole life approach” to mental health that doesn’t stop at the counselling room door. If this manifesto were realised, it would represent a transformation of the mental health system – but the principles that underpin it are not new – they have underpinned community services for decades.

Our manifesto is part of Our Minds Our Future, a National Lottery-funded project we are organising together with partners across the UK. In each of the UK’s devolved nations, young people have been coming together to outline their collective vision for mental health services in their communities. Their varying calls reflect their different local realities and lived experiences, but there is so much that unites their calls for open-access, community-based services that have been undervalued by those in power for too long.

Together with our partners and young people in all four nations, we hope to build a movement of service providers and decisionmakers around the country committed to looking beyond merely clinical concerns and treating each young person as an individual – so that young people like Olivia will always have a place to turn when they find themselves in need of support.