Posted: 23 August 2018

Settling the minds of unaccompanied young people

We offer support for unaccompanied young people, who are in the UK without their parents, often having experienced violence, family breakdown, exploitation and other struggles before arriving here.

Our recent report, Distress Signals: Unaccompanied young people’s struggle for mental health support  (2018) looks at the mental health needs of unaccompanied young people and the barriers that stop them from getting the support they need.

Common mental health struggles

Unaccompanied young people can face mental health issues connected to their experiences before they arrived in the UK, including trauma, sleep disturbances and bereavement.

We might hope that unaccompanied young people’s troubles stop once their difficult journeys have ended and they are in the UK. But in reality, many still struggle to access housing or education and resolve their immigration status – all of which can cause their mental health to deteriorate.

Social isolation can compound their problems, resulting in a sense of loss for young people who are struggling to find their feet in a new country - or are actively outcast by it.

Removing the barriers

Unaccompanied young people face many barriers to accessing the mental health care that they desperately need. The complex language used to discuss mental health and the need for an interpreter may make it difficult for young people to even describe their issues.

Other barriers include insufficient assessments to identify their needs, lack of co-ordination between support services and the detrimental impact of Home Office processes for regularising their immigration status in the UK.

The risks of not receiving mental health support can be stark: we know of cases where young people have self-harmed or committed suicide.

Traumatic immigration processes

The outcome of an immigration or asylum application will shape the rest of an unaccompanied young person’s life. Our research found that Home Offices processes, including delays, negative decisions on Home Office applications and harsh questioning in interviews, can trigger trauma responses in unaccompanied young people.

Young people using our services have waited for up two years for the Home Office to respond to their applications for asylum, during which time their lives remain unsettled. Practitioners who were interviewed for our research spoke about the trauma that these bureaucratic processes can trigger: '…if you think about previous trauma and not being [secure], having to flee…and that sense of not having a place of safety… it’s all linked.'

'A trauma response is all about not being believed and not being understood.'

Speaking up for every young person

As well as a durable solution to give them stability, unaccompanied young people need someone to speak up for their rights. Without an adult to protect their best interests in all decisions involving them, as a parent would, they can lose out on what they need.

For years, we have called upon the government to commit to providing independent guardians for unaccompanied young people. Without such support, young people will continue to face barriers that create mental health issues, or exacerbate any existing mental health struggles.

Systems need to change to include more sensitive and robust mental health support for unaccompanied young people and others arriving in the UK. Those with the power need to understand the challenge, and be creative in bringing about change for young people.

Find out more by reading the full report: Distress Signals: Unaccompanied young people’s struggle for mental health support

By Rupinder Parhar - Policy team
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