The Importance of Emotional Resilience for Young People in Northern Ireland
Dr Ka Ka Katie Tsang and Dr Nicole Bond
The COVID-19 restrictions had unexpected and far-reaching effects on children and young people in Northern Ireland. During the pandemic, there was a significant increase in the number of young people seeking mental health services. The reduction of support previously accessible through schools and the suspension of mental health specialist support teams further compounded the situation. Many young people affected by anxiety and depression had limited access to assistance and were unsure of where to seek help.
Even after the pandemic, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) continue to struggle with long waiting times for initial assessments. The issue of problematic waiting lists existed prior to the pandemic, and a report from the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People highlights the uneven distribution of mental health services across the country.
As a result, more young people in crisis are turning to hospital emergency care for treatment. This calls for a closer examination of the information and support provided in schools to facilitate early intervention for children and young people.
Northern Ireland has higher rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress compared to other UK regions. Adverse childhood experiences, having a parent with a mental health problem, and the lingering effects of the conflict contribute to these higher rates. The challenges in accessing care and services for young people with mental health concerns persist and have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Recovery efforts in Northern Ireland’s education sector should extend beyond academic attainment. The Office of the Mental Health Champion emphasises the need to address the mental health support challenges facing young people in the region. This includes preserving therapeutic programs that provide crucial specialist support to those most in need.
A report by the Education Training Inspectorate highlighted lengthy referral pathways and insufficient capacity for free services in schools. Many parents rely on school pastoral care and emergency services, resulting in prolonged distress for affected individuals.
To effectively identify and address deteriorating mental health in young people, schools need centralised mental health information. Teachers and school staff, although not mental health practitioners, play a vital role in recognizing early signs of distress and providing support. They have a vested interest in the well-being of young people and can promote positive mental health information.
Access to mental health information and support services remains a challenge, compounded by the ongoing political crisis. The Office of the Mental Health Champion calls for full funding and consistent implementation of the Emotional Health and Wellbeing in Schools Framework. This framework emphasises the importance of raising awareness to reduce harm to children’s emotional health and well-being. The consequence of not reviewing, updating and increasing access to existing resources is that the cycle of hidden harm continues to affect new generations. Particularly, in a context where one in five pupils were found to be affected by significant mental health issues by the time they reach the age of 18.
Making emotional resilience and well-being a mandatory part of the Northern Ireland curriculum can ensure consistent and proactive engagement in recognizing early symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can also help reduce the stigma associated with discussing mental health concerns.
An inclusive curriculum that promotes resilience can provide young people and staff with the tools to express their feelings and engage in difficult conversations about mental health. The NI Youth Forum report found that 86% of young people previously emphasised not knowing how to talk about mental health and felt they “lacked the ability to put their feelings into words”.
Similar initiatives in the United States and Norway have demonstrated positive outcomes, including reduced stigma and improved knowledge about mental health.
A curriculum that addresses emotional resilience and mental health literacy can help build a school population with the knowledge they need to ask for help. This proactive measure can alleviate delays in referral pathways for mental health services and teach young people how to respond to challenging situations. Figures collected from the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People say that 3 in 10 referrals to CAMHS are not accepted due to being inappropriate for the service, leaving young people in further distress.
To ensure quality provision of emotional health and well-being education, data on curriculum delivery and performance in schools is essential. The Office of the Mental Health Champion recommends embedding mental health and emotional resilience into the curriculum from a young age. This approach would help young people identify and manage their emotions and recognize when they need additional support.
In conclusion, prioritising mental health and emotional resilience in the curriculum is crucial for the well-being of young people in Northern Ireland. It will reduce stigma, facilitate early intervention, and improve mental health outcomes in schools and beyond.
- Dr Nicole Bond is a Research Officer within the office of the Mental Health Champion Northern Ireland.
- Dr Ka Ka Katie Tsang is a Research Fellow at the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics in Queen’s University Belfast and a member of the Northern Ireland International Public Policy Observatory team.