Time to look after the mental health of foster care

It is clear from the recent children’s commissioner report that mental health services for children and young people in England are unable to cope with the demand. This issue is of particular concern for children and young people in foster care. There are many resilient children and young people in foster care who are coping well with the challenges of lockdown. However, many are struggling with their mental health and statistics show they are more likely to experience difficulties than their peers who are not in care.

It is important to acknowledge the many committed practitioners and foster carers doing their utmost to support children and their families and helping them to cope with mental health challenges at the most uncertain of times. However, on a systemic level, the report shows there has been little improvement in service provision and this is evident in the data on the number of treatments available and the continued wait times for support. This lack of improvement at the systems level is being exacerbated by what some people refer to as the mental health tsunami caused by the broader impacts of COVID-19, which has resulted in a rise of referrals of people needing help. The commissioner’s report provides clear evidence for policymakers and offers recommendations too; it argues there is a need to address the great disparity of provision across different postcodes. 

There is a growing recognition that mental health service provision needs improvement to respond to the year of grief, loss and isolation that many in the UK have experienced. There have been ongoing calls since the start of the pandemic for the government to seize this moment and see the need and opportunity to build back better. This would require an investment to strengthen and build the capacity of the existing mental health workforce and increase the number of services which will improve accessibility to support and reduce unnecessary wait times. The commissioner’s report adds weight to these calls.

It is vital that the needs of children in care are a key part of these plans. Alongside better support for the foster carers that do the vital work of looking after them. 

Children and young people in care have long been overrepresented in the statistics of children and young people receiving mental health services. The reasons for this are complex and can be a result of their experiences, which may have included abuse and neglect. During the first lockdown at The Martin James Foundation, we surveyed over 400 foster carers who access our FosterTalk Service. The results showed that for many of the respondents the mental health of the households was being impacted both the carers and the children. Some carers (20%) spoke of children that were coping better with lockdown at home due to the relief from the pressures of their day to day routines, like schooling. However, 36% reported that children’s mental health had worsened and there were similar results in relation to increased behavioural challenges. As a result, it is unsurprising that the carers reported their own mental health had deteriorated and the experience of fostering during a lockdown was encapsulated by one respondent who said;  ‘Looking after my mental & emotional well-being has become incredibly difficult as there is literally no physical or emotional escape from the confines of this lockdown or meeting the increasingly challenging needs of the foster children.’ 

As we emerge from the pandemic with a vaccinated population and hopefully with the easing of lockdown restrictions mental health services must be improved for everyone. It is also vital that the needs and views of children and young people in care, and their foster carers, are considered in any development of policies and services.