At 14 years of age, Kai was feeling all churned up after a succession of events rocked his life. On the eve of lockdown last March, he was riding home when a group of youths tried to steal his bike and threatened him, leaving him “too scared to go outside”.
Then came the deaths of his grandmother and his young cousin, not from Covid, but the pandemic meant he was unable to say goodbye to two people who had been “very close”.
“The deaths in my family and all the people dying from Covid all around made me feel very down,” he said. “I was fuming from the mugging and I was not feeling myself but I kept it all bottled up and at school I started getting into fights.
“There was this kid who wouldn’t listen when I told him to stay away from me, so I went for him and threw him over a desk and got thrown out of class. At home, I started arguing and shouting at my mum, which upset me, because we are close.”
Kai, an only child living in Tower Hamlets, had never had mental health problems before the pandemic and his increasingly dark thoughts began to scare him.
“Things spiralled when I started to lose friends,” he said. “The parents of one of my best friends told him he was never to talk to me again because apparently I was a ‘violent aggressive person’. It was extremely upsetting. There is only so much you can take before you explode.”
Luckily, help was at hand. “My mum called the school and asked if I could see somebody and they arranged for me to see Laura,” he said.
“The first session I was sceptical about, but after that it was like having a friend to talk to every week. It really helped me to talk it all out. I no longer feel afraid to leave my home and I haven’t been in any fights since. I have learnt more self-control and not to hold grudges. Laura also helped me deal with my grief and I feel lighter.”
Laura works for Place2Be, the UK’s leading provider of schools-based mental health services, and she is one of several hundred counsellors who are deployed by the charity in 150 primary and secondary schools across London — and who help thousands of vulnerable children like Kai.
Today the Evening Standard launches a new campaign — Young London SOS — in which we have partnered with Place2Be to address the devastating mental health crisis faced by young people in the wake of the pandemic.
We are appealing to readers, businesses and philanthropists to donate generously so we can help them reach more schools and more vulnerable students across the capital.
It follows our special investigation which revealed that an additional 500,000 children and adolescents who had no diagnosable mental health problems before Covid-19 will need support this year, and that even before the crisis, only 25 per cent of young people with serious mental health problems get the care they need on the NHS.
The charity provides weekly one-to-one counselling for vulnerable pupils, a lunch-time referral service which any pupil can access, group work, training for teachers and support for parents.
It costs around £33,000 a year to put a Place2Be team into a new school to provide this “whole school” approach and the results are impressive: more than 80 per cent of pupils seen one-to-one show improvement in wellbeing and three-quarters are doing better in friendships and at home.
Catherine Roche, chief executive of Place2Be, said: “We believe no child should face mental health problems alone. We were already seeing an increase in issues before the pandemic and the subsequent isolation, disruption to routines, and fears about the future has all had a damaging impact for some children.
“We have seen that, with support, young people can gain healthy coping skills and go on to survive and thrive in even the most challenging circumstances. The Young London SOS campaign will help us reach more children and more schools and we are incredibly grateful to readers of the Evening Standard for their support.”
Headteachers who already use Place2Be spoke about the positive impact.
David Benson, headteacher at Kensington Aldridge Academy, the secondary school below Grenfell Tower, said: “Because of Grenfell, we learned the importance of building resilience.
“We have extensive support from Place2Be and work hand in glove with them. Vulnerable children need to be identified quickly and given support.
“About 15 per cent of our children — and the same proportion of staff — see a Place2Be counsellor at some point. That’s support for over 100 of our most vulnerable children. I don’t know how we’d manage without them.”
Emilie Haston, headteacher at Goldfinch Primary School in Wandsworth, said: “Teachers have a huge workload and are neither therapists nor professionals in mental health, so to have Place2Be in our school is invaluable.
“They provide a school project manager who co-ordinates several counsellors who see vulnerable children every week for around nine months. They also offer informal Place2Talk sessions over lunchtimes, which are hugely over-subscribed. It raises the profile of mental health across the whole school. Without them I would be utterly bereft.”
Place2Be school project managers and counsellors told the Standard how mental health can impact anybody, from the disaffected to A-grade students.
Lorraine (not her real name), who works for Place2Be at a secondary school with more than 2,000 pupils in east London, said: “The pandemic has generated three strands of mental health responses: raised anxiety, low mood and bereavement issues. In some cases, it’s adding a layer to a pre-existing hurricane of mental health problems, in other cases it has pitched children who never had problems into choppy seas.”
Lorraine told the story of an ambitious 16-year-old expected to get straight As and who came to a Place2Talk drop-in session in October because of feeling anxious about her future.
“We soon realised her problems ran deeper and that she needed weekly one-to-one support,” said Lorraine. “She had moved quickly from anxiety to depression and had begun asking existential questions about the point of life and expressing suicidal thoughts.”
Lorraine added: “It is always distressing to hear a teenager talk about how their joy in life has dwindled to an extent that they don’t want to be alive.”
150 number of London schools P2B operate in
4,795 pupils helped in one-to-one weekly counselling by P2B staff in London last year
30,000 pupils helped via Place2Talk one-off counselling sessions last year
After one-to-one counselling with Place2Be:
81% of pupils with the highest level of need show improvement in well-being
75% show improvement in friendships
Thankfully, she is now doing better. “The counselling has helped and we have activated services around her and brought her parents on board and although she is a work in progress, she is no longer suicidal. Sometimes just talking in a safe space and naming this awful thing allows you to start to work your way out of it.”
Asked why she got into counselling for Place2Be, Lorraine, 30, said: “My mum died when I was 13, so I know what it is like to go through something as a teenager.
“For every young person who tells me they’re in pain and struggling to see a way out, I can see the brilliant light within them — and hopefully I can help them to see it too.”
You can support the Young London SOS campaign by donating to Place2Be HERE