Written by Editorial Team, DonateToday
Published: Monday, 9th April 2018

'I was very depressed and very isolated' – young man reflects on his experiences of the care system and how UK charity Family Action helped

Problems in his family home and a lack of stability in care left John isolated and depressed – Family Action is helping him overcome those challenges and offering help to others like him.

Confusing and Distracting

Young people in the UK can be taken into care for a number of reasons. Now 18, John is very open about the reasons he entered the care system a number of years ago: ‘I had to be in care because of conflict in my family home to do with mental health and alcohol,’ he acknowledges.

‘It’s quite hard,’ John says. ‘There can be a lot of problems and barriers to get through – there’s not a lot of consistency: there are a lot of different places and loads of professionals to work with.

‘Especially when you’re young, stability is very important,’ he explains. ‘But when you’re in care, there’s often no stability – there’s a lot of change and moving around. It can be very confusing and distracting for a young person.’

Depressed

By definition, young people in care have had a difficult start in life. This, combined with the instability John describes, can lead to depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, which often continue into adulthood. For example, in 2012, the Department of Health reported that looked-after children and care leavers were between four and five times more likely to self-harm in adulthood.

While John is not following this particular trajectory, he is under no illusions as to the effect the care system had on him. ‘I used to build relationships with people, get along with them very well and then in a few months they would leave, or it would just break up,’ he remembers.

‘I was very depressed and very isolated,’ John continues. ‘I didn’t come out of my bedroom – I was sleeping all day and all night.’

Friendship Works

Fortunately, somebody within John’s care network referred his case to UK charity Family Action and, specifically, their Friendship Works service.

This service has been running for over 40 years and aims to pair adult volunteer mentors with young people who have experienced childhood trauma or disrupted attachments. Through the friendships forged via these matches, the young people involved are supported to develop socially and emotionally; to take advantage of new opportunities and to explore new interests and talents.

Friendship Works Caseworker Neil Nute supervised John’s participation in the service. ‘Neil came to see me a few times,’ John recalls. ‘He asked me questions about myself: what I liked doing; who my ideal mentor would be.

‘I think I saw him three times before meeting Nick,’ John continues. ‘After a while, Neil told me they’d found someone, and I met up with Nick to talk about our common interests.’

"When I went through hard times, he gave me advice. I could call him any time and I would talk to him a lot. He helped me with my confidence."

John

Gradual Movement

What followed was a friendship which developed thanks to effort on both sides, as Neil remembers: ‘In those first few months, it’s fair to say that John’s engagement was mixed,’ he says. ‘He sometimes refused to come out of his room when Nick arrived, other times he cancelled, on a few occasions he did meet up.

‘John was quite anxious about going out or he’d need some persuasion,’ Neil continues. ‘That was fairly characteristic of the first couple of months.

The services emphasises the importance of reliability in volunteer mentors, as this is what helps build trust in the first few months.

John’s recollection of the early days of his friendship with Nick gives some insight into how young people can put up barriers to hide their true feelings at that stage, “I know I came across as someone who probably wasn’t interested, but that’s not what I was feeling at all. It was an issue around trust and what Nick might think of me.”

Neil picks up the story, explaining how Nick’s consistent approach was key to breaking through John’s reticence, ‘One of the things John talked about was that Nick was someone who kept coming back. On a couple of occasions, they just had a chat through the door because John wasn’t in the right frame of mind and that was OK, Nick would come back the next week when he was feeling a bit better and they’d go out.

‘It was a very gradual movement towards going out into the community and doing a few more things.’

Positive Effect

As well as encouraging John to get out and about more, Nick’s presence had a positive impact in other ways.

‘When I went through hard times, he gave me advice,’ John remembers. ‘I could call him any time and I would talk to him a lot. He also helped with setting up work experience and with my confidence.

‘It’s been very good for me and I think it would be very good for other people,’ the young man enthuses. ‘If I didn’t have that [support from Family Action and Nick] I don’t know where I’d be – maybe still depressed or with worse issues.’

Challenges

Unfortunately, John is all too aware that his challenges in life are far from over. ‘If you’re not in education when you’re 18, a lot of the support goes away,’ he says.

‘I don’t think it’s fair because, if you were still with your mum and dad, they wouldn’t say “we’re not going to help you anymore because you’re not in education now.”

‘That’s why I think that what Friendship Works do – offering the support – can help in a big way because they might have nobody else to help them.’

John’s sentiments about the lack of support for those leaving the care system at 18 are echoed by Neil. ‘The expectation is that, at 18, you are equipped to manage independent living,’ he explains. ‘There is some support available, for example from personal advisers and the ‘Staying Put’ scheme, but it is nothing like what is available pre-18.

‘So many young Londoners these days don’t leave home till they are well into their 20s, and they’re coming from loving, nurturing family homes with lots of support networks in place. John is about to venture onto a journey without a lot of that – having had all that baggage of experiences in the care system and an incredibly problematic family upbringing.”

Statistics available endorse that view. A DfE report cites that:

  • in 2010, 25% of those who were homeless had been in care at some point in their lives;
  • in 2008, 49% of young men under the age of 21 who had come into contact with the criminal justic system had a care experience; 
  • in 2014, 22% of female care leaves became teenage parents.

"I think a lot of people probably don't know and don't understand."

John

Support

Being aware of the challenges facing care leavers of 18 and older, Family Action’s Friendship Works team are developing a pilot mentoring programme specifically for care-leavers which will soon be rolled out to around 60 young people across London, with a view to extending its service in coming years.

The aim of this new programme is to match care leavers with an adult volunteer mentor to support them with building resilience, life-skills and a sense of self-worth, which will subsequently place them in a better position to gain employment, training or further education.

For John, despite the unquestionable challenges he faces, the future does hold some promise. Following a successful interview, he has been offered the role of Project Worker with the Friendship Works team, as they implement the care leavers programme. 

‘I hope it will benefit a lot of young people as they leave care,’ he says. ‘They will face big challenges in their life, and a supportive friendship with a mentor will make it easier for them.

‘It will also spread awareness of the challenges they face – I think a lot of people probably don’t know and don’t understand,’ John finishes.

‘There is support available for care leavers, but it’s very limited compared with what they had whilst in care,’ Neil adds. ‘I would hope that this service will go some way towards filling the void in terms of the relationship-based support that is often very lacking for a very vulnerable group who face some major life challenges as they enter adulthood.’

Family Action relies on kind public donations and volunteers giving up their time to continue to provide the Friendship Works service, and to develop new programmes such as the care leaver mentoring service. Please consider volunteering and giving what you can to ensure more young people like John can be given access to the support they so desperately need.