Dr Jessica DeightonFostering resilience in children and young people is being recognised as an important public health goal, and initiatives such as HeadStart are looking to deliver this, as Dr Jessica Deighton explains in this guest blog.

Research tells us that about 1 in 10 children and young people in the UK experience mental health problems significant enough to need specialist support, a proportion that has stayed relatively stable in the past 10-15 years. However, more recently we have seen an escalation in emotional problems, particularly for teenage girls

Late childhood and adolescence can be a time of storm and stress for young people as they deal with major transitions in school life, relationships and physical development. It’s a time when mental health problems can emerge or escalate. The risks are particularly pronounced when young people are exposed to adversity, such as economic hardship, unstable family lives and social isolation.

While some children may possess the internal resources to navigate such difficulties relatively unscathed, many require support to foster the skills to cope and function in circumstances often outside their control. Research points to a number of evidence-based treatments for specific mental health problems, but there is increasing recognition of the importance of a more systemic approach. This takes support to young people in the places they spend their everyday lives – support embedded in schools and communities, and working with families – working with those at risk before mental health problems become engrained. This approach has long been advocated by Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families and its profile has been raised thanks in part to the Heads Together campaign that is supported by our patron, the Duchess of Cambridge. 

This emphasis on fostering resilience has gained significant traction in recent years, and shares some common ground with the Department for Education’s recent focus on character. In essence it’s about fostering “the capacity to bounce back from adversity". A recent Association for Young People’s Health report noted some core themes to this kind of work: a focus on local need, the importance of evidence-based interventions, and combinations of ‘universal’ and preventative elements alongside support that targets those at greatest risk. Many examples exist of mental health provision that adhere to this model but none are as ambitious as HeadStart.

HeadStart is a national programme, supported by the Big Lottery Fund, to support young people’s emotional wellbeing, particularly those at most risk of poor mental health. The aim is to build local partnerships to develop models for mental health support that are tailored to local needs and local systems. The programme began as a pilot in 2014, with further funding now confirmed for six partnerships across England to build and strengthen their work with young people for the next seven years. 

The local models developed so far are impressive in scale and extremely varied in the number and types of support provided, including everything from teacher training to therapy working with horses. All six partnerships are hugely invested in achieving system-wide change in the way children’s mental health is supported, and in equipping a varied workforce in supporting young people to manage challenges and difficulties.  

There are two main reasons why HeadStart represents an important step forward in mental health support. Firstly, it places young people themselves at the heart of the programme, as partners rather than patients. Secondly, it takes a holistic approach, building its interventions on the needs, context and circumstances of each area rather than imposing a top-down solution. 

There has never been a time of plenty in terms of funding for children’s mental health services and now is no exception. We need to ensure the resources and approaches we apply in this area are used as effectively as possible and have the widest possible positive impact. That’s why we are keen to see this holistic, grassroots approach inspiring the development of policy and practice in the wider system.

About the author

Dr Jessica Deighton is a lecturer in School-Based Mental Health Research, Evaluation, and Evidence-Based Research at UCL, and deputy director of the Evidence Based Practice Unit and Head of Evaluation and Schools Research at The Anna Freud Centre.