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Deanna Neilson is a guest speaker and external expert to our National Safeguarding Board and works with the London Borough of Hillingdon as Head of Regulated Services. She was previously the Head of Safeguarding at Action for Children for 4+ years. Deanne has provided a blog for Nacro’s Safeguarding Week, focussing on the mental health of young people.  

It is Nacro’s Safeguarding Week and I want to talk about young people’s mental health and safeguarding. It is time to shift our frame of reference from ‘what did you do and why did you do it’ to ‘how are you feeling’, ‘I am here to listen and understand’ and ‘I believe you’. 

For children and young people to be mentally healthy they need; physical health (including a good diet and exercise), to explore and develop interests, to feel loved and valued as part of a family, to be supported to learn, problem solve and to feel part of a community. More than anything, to be supported when things go wrong. They need to feel a sense of optimism and trust that they will be heard and believed. 

A sign of the times  

Things have certainly gone wrong in the last 12 months for our young people. We are still in the grip of a global pandemic that has meant normal life for young people has utterly changed. The structures, comforts and challenges of school, activities and peer groups have been taken away and replaced with home education and parents working from home, all in the same space. Physical life, space and interaction has reduced, while at the same time it seems the online world is endless with no safe boundaries. 

A few things have happened between the request for this blog and me sitting down to type. One was that a high-profile young woman of colour spoke about her experience of racism within an institution, and of her feelings of suicidality not being believed. The other was that women and men of all ages attended a vigil to mourn the life of a woman murdered. In the various spaces I have seen on screens and online, I have been horrified by the levels of hatred and disbelief that have emerged when someone who has been suffering or grieving tells their truth.  

The comments and statements that Megan Markle is lying will have had a traumatic impact on any young person who is struggling with their mental health and might be feeling so bad that they have thought about taking their own life. If you are a young person looking at your screen and seeing these comments and opinions, you may well feel that you would not be believed, and there is no safe adult to confide in.  

Speaking up, with no boundaries 

For young women and men, boys and girls and trans young people who may have experienced violence, abuse, hatred and bullying and want to tell their story – how will the brutal dismissal of expression and negative commentary that we saw at the Clapham Common vigil and indeed in the Black Lives Matter protests affect them? To safeguard mental health we must be able to encourage our young people to express themselves and tell their stories without facing derision, disbelief, racism and further abuse. 

Please encourage the children and young people you work with to share their thoughts and feelings about what is going on in the world today and how it affects them.  

If you can offer awareness, kindness, curiosity, affirmation and listening without judgement, you may be that safe person that a troubled child or young person will confide in to seek help. 

Adults need to be mindful of their statements online and their public judgements of others – what does the impact of these opinions have on your friends, family, your children and other children and young people in your networks? 

Please also engage each other as peers and professionals to discuss these issues with kindness and compassion and help colleagues to speak out and be heard, and to gain the emotional support we all need as safeguarding professionals to do our jobs in challenging times. If we don’t safeguard each other’s mental health we cannot effectively help the children, young people and families who need us.