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Tim Opie: Emotional and Mental Wellbeing and trauma – what contribution is Youth Work making?

Tim OpieWhilst regrettable that it has become a national priority, there is currently a substantial focus on children and young people’s wellbeing, due to increasing evidence of a generation of our young people who are experiencing difficulties coping with the numerous challenges that their lives are presenting.

It is commonly accepted that young people today experience - and are required to cope with - far more complex and faster lifestyles than previous generations, with the recent addition of social media meaning that almost everything captured or written is available and is accessible immediately. This can of course have both positive and negative impacts and the key to negotiating this high level assault on the senses and broad range of choice is education – understanding consequences and learning how to make informed choices.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

For some, a generic level of guidance and support is sufficient to negotiate these life pressures. For others (who experience rather more serious and traumatic events), higher levels of support and even therapeutic interventions are required. As part of the response to this, the Youth Work sector has been working closely with a number of stakeholders and other experts in up-skilling the Youth Work workforce in supporting young people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) and trauma. Alongside the housing sector and schools, the Youth Workforce has been determined by Cymru Well Wales (a movement of motivated organisations that are committed to working together today to secure better health for the people of Wales tomorrow) as a priority sector to receive awareness raising and training from the ACE Hub. The sector has been working closely with the ACE Hub in designing and rolling out initial training and, in October, train-the-trainer events.

Trauma Recovery

The Wales Principal Youth Officers’ Group (PYOG), in conjunction with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), has also recently commissioned intensive two-day training for over 100 local authority Youth Workers in the Trauma Recovery Model, an approach which “presents a series of layers of intervention which are sequenced according to developmental and mental health need”.

This has provided them with a greater awareness of the latest methods and research in behaviour recognition and behaviour management as well as a higher level of understanding of the latest evidence from neuroscience, particularly the development of the child and adolescent mind and how trauma can affect this. The three aspects of the training are:

  • The central feature contained within the triangle of the model, relates to the behavioural presentation of the young person concerned.
  • The model also highlights the underlying developmental need and...
  • The type of intervention best suited to address the need within the residential setting.

Like teachers, Youth Work practitioners are on the ‘front line’ when engaging with, listening to, educating and nurturing young people. Whilst there are a number of valued methods of engagement with young people under the umbrella term Youth Support Services, youth work is open to all young people aged 11-25 with its key purpose being to:

“enable young people to develop holistically, working with them to facilitate their personal, social and educational development, to enable them to develop their voice, influence and place in society and to reach their full Potential.” (Youth Work National Occupational Standards).

It is based on a voluntary engagement and delivered via informal and non-formal education approaches during the period of transition from childhood to adulthood.

Self-esteem, self-efficacy, resilience and emotional growth

Youth services act as an important preventative service, often keeping a young person from getting to a critical point where further interventions e.g. social services, housing, CAMHS, police etc. are required. By working closely with a young person, helping them navigate through their difficulties and experiences, the need for more acute and expensive interventions is often avoided.

Many social competencies, resilience factors and self-regulatory factors are learnt by seeing and doing, by experiencing and failing as well as succeeding – the ability to cope with failure, to bounce back and learn from the experience. Youth work provides not only opportunities for young people aged 11-25 to build and re-build aspects of their lives, to reflect and evaluate but also provide learning programmes in their own right using techniques in supportive environments which offers an alternative for young people in seeking to achieve their full potential. “...having pro-social opportunities to demonstrate courage – through sports, drama, civic engagement or supporting social justice – are likely to have enhanced positive effects during this (adolescent) developmental period. Such experiences may not only prevent antisocial and self injurious paths, but may also promote healthy trajectories and identity development”1

However, many young people using youth services are already disengaged from mainstream services and are often vulnerable. Some are currently in the care of child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) or social services, others perhaps need to be but do not have the motivation or ability to seek help. As well as assisting young people to become self-sufficient and interdependent, youth workers are also competent advocates, acting in the best interests of the young person whilst aiding the skills developments of that individual.

1 Ronald Dahl, Nicholas B. Allen, Linda Wilbrecht & Ahna Ballenhoff Suleiman. Importance of investing in adolescence from a developmental science perspective, p. 7 (2018). Nature.

Tim Opie, Lifelong Learning Policy Officer (Youth), Welsh Local Government Association

Tim Opie is employed by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), the organisation which represents the interests of local government and promotes local democracy in Wales. It represents the 22 local authorities in Wales and the 3 fire and rescue authorities and 3 national park authorities are associate members.

Tim is a member of the Lifelong Learning, Leisure & Information Directorate within the WLGA and is the Lifelong Learning Policy Officer (Youth), covering issues relating to young people aged 11-25 years. This includes a role as facilitator of and policy support for the Wales Principal Youth Officers’ Group (PYOG), the network of strategic leads for the Youth Service in the local authorities in Wales.