On Children’s Mental Health Week (1-7 February) new research has highlighted that one in eight children and young people are struggling with emotional difficulties across Northern Ireland. The Youth Wellbeing Survey* also highlighted that anxiety and depression is 25% more common in children and young people in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of the UK.

Charity Action for Children’s Blues Team actively work to mitigate anxiety and depression in young people across Northern Ireland. They have adapted to the pandemic, offering virtual mental health and mindfulness workshops to children and young people across the province. As schools closed, they worked rapidly to adapt their resources for online sessions while also creating Bouncing Back, a new offering to help meet the specific needs that came with the pandemic.

Emma O’Neill, Blues Service Co-ordinator said, “Our Bouncing Back virtual programme was set up as a direct response to the pandemic and the demand from schools to offer continued assistance to the needs of children and young people during these difficult times.”

Emma continued, “Bouncing Back focuses on building resilience and addressing young people’s emotional wellbeing needs. It’s a vital resource for the times we’re currently facing as we see higher rates of mental health and well-being problems in young people across Northern Ireland.”

Pre-pandemic, close to one in two young people aged 11-19 years (47.5%) had experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience and the pandemic has added more layers of stress on the whole population. Action for Children recognised a need for a recovery plan and worked hard to create resources to help young people focus on their well-being and mental health during lockdown, when they’re missing so many of the familiar parts of their daily lives. Their work has been recognised as especially important during this uncertain time for students as lockdown commences, closing schools across Northern Ireland.

Strabane Academy teacher, Rhonda Dunn, witnessed the benefits of the Blues Programme in her own students: “We have been fortunate and delighted to welcome the staff from Action for Children into our school to complete a range of programmes to support our young people in their mental health and well-being. As a school, we recognise the need to source opportunities for our pupils to ensure they can have the best mental health support that can be offered, while also providing a solid foundation for individuals to deal with any future issues they may face.

“Mental health and well-being is a real issue in our society, and as a school we aim to have in place preventative measures and active support to respond to need. The pupils involved have greatly benefitted from the work of Action for Children, they speak positively about this opportunity and its individual impact. “

Since young people returned to the classrooms in September 2020, the Blues Bouncing Back programme, specifically created as a response to the pandemic, has supported 1500 Young People across Northern Ireland.

Julia*, who is a Year 11 student at Strabane Academy, undertook the Bouncing Back programme during lockdown and found it very useful.

“I think everyone could benefit from the Bouncing Back programme. The sessions can really help your mental health in a lot of ways. I learnt how to recognise my triggers for low moods and was taught some methods of refocusing your mind on something positive when those triggers hit.”

Evidence highlights that early interventions are key to limit longer-term impacts. In light of the recent admission that £300m in Covid funding at Stormont has yet to be allocated this financial year and the call from the Finance Minister for proposals for bids “as a matter of urgency” – Action for Children are calling for the Education Minister Peter Weir to bid for funds to invest more in school programmes that support the emotional wellbeing of our children and young people.

Lorna Ballard, NI Director at Action for Children, said: “We know from our services that many young people are struggling at home without their usual support networks, having to cope with the pressures of remote learning, family health fears, loneliness and pressure in the home and fears about their future – all the while being bombarded by social media and depressing headlines.

“The government must commit to adequate funding and specialist services to tackle the surge in demand caused by the pandemic and stop a generation of children from suffering in silence. Our own school programmes show how vital it is to step in early with support to stop problems in their tracks and dial down the agony these young people face.”

The Blues Programme is an evidence-based, six-week group intervention for 13 to 19-year olds with early symptoms of anxiety and depression. The programme is based upon the principles of cognitive-behavioural therapy and aims to reduce participants’ mental health symptoms and boost their confidence. The programme has been adapted to be used remotely and is continuing to provide support to young people across Northern Ireland during this lockdown. If you’re interested in finding out more, please contact the Blues Team at blues@actionforchildren.org.uk

*Student name changed for confidentiality

Nadia Duncan

Author: Nadia Duncan

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