Youth organisations have a big role in improving child mental health

7 Apr 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Apr 2022

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash
Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

The wellbeing of Northern Ireland’s children and young people remains a concern. Local youth groups could do with better financial support – and help building systems where they can collaborate.


Rates of anxiety and depression amongst children and young people in Northern Ireland are around 25% higher than in the rest of the UK.

One in eight local children experience emotional difficulties.

There are many reasons for this. Making things better requires several solutions, and collaboration. Parents, schools and mental health services all have a role to play – as do specialised youth services.

There are hundreds of youth groups across Northern Ireland who work with children and young people in all sorts of different ways.

New research from YMCA, the Bytes Project and Youth Initiatives, and carried out by Stats & Stories, says that, every week, over 17,000 children and young people access voluntary youth schemes in NI.

Building resilience in young people: youth work in the voluntary sector found that many of these groups offer specific activities or programmes to help build resilience and improve mental health. However, they could do with more help.

That could mean more funding or resources – which is always the case, but strings on the public purse are likely to be very tight for quite some time – but it could also mean building better links that lead to more, and more effective, cooperation.

Cooperation between groups, and between youth organisations and other institutions that want to boost child mental health, such as the Education Authority (EA), Public Health Agency (PHA), and CAMHS in the five health trusts – all of this could make a big difference, according to the report.

Findings and funding

Over 50 youth groups responded to the research’s survey, which was carried out in October last year and which focused on the later period of the pandemic – April to September in 2021 – when social distancing measures were broadly more relaxed and where more provision could be put in place.

Some of the organisations are specifically local, while others operate on a regional basis. Between them all, they offer services in all 11 council areas.

Participants were asked to estimate the number of activities or programmes they offer that support young people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing, and the number of young people who take part in an average week – with results suggesting “over 12,000 young people per week participate in 828 activities or programmes delivered by the voluntary youth work sector supporting mental health”.

Youth groups come in different shapes and sizes, and this is reflected in the funding these organisations receive:

  • 13.5% reporting that their annual income was under £10k
  • 16.7% said it was between £10k and £100k
  • 51.0% said it was between £100k and £750k
  • 18.9% said their income was over £750,000 (mostly consisting of regional youth work providers)

Almost 95% already receive funding from the EA, while 96.3% take funding from other sources. About half of the organisations with EA funding received a moderation visit from the Education Authority – and all were rated either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

So, the work being done is good. But how can it improve, and how can it reach more young people?

Per the report:

  • 97.8% of participants strongly agreed or agreed that with additional resources, their organisation has the potential to deliver more work to support young people’s resilience
  • 95.7% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that better opportunities for collaboration with others within the voluntary youth sector would improve support for young people

Finding more resources could obviously be useful.

After May’s elections, Northern Ireland will have a cash-strapped government or no government at all. Other big funders will also be stretched.

Finding more money and resources for youth-sector work isn’t impossible – especially as mental health is one of NI’s more notorious problems, and that addressing this in young people is a type of early intervention, the value of which is well known.

It’s not impossible, but it is difficult and that should be acknowledged. However, even within the funding process, positive changes can be made without much cost.

The report proposes new funding models for this kind of work, including multi-year budgets to allow for better planning and sustainability.

Building better pathways for cooperation, however, is perhaps possible without huge financial costs.


Most youth organisations already take part in various collaborations.

Per the report: “Findings show that voluntary youth work providers had established multiple relationships with statutory agencies, community organisations and schools. On average, voluntary youth work providers reported collaborating with 4.5 other organisations to support young people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing… schools are a significant partner in this work as two – thirds of voluntary youth work providers collaborated with a local post-primary school (67.4%) with 43.5% working with their local primary school…

“Collaboration to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing within the voluntary sector is also substantial as 63.0% of organisations work with another local voluntary youth work provider with 52.2% working with a regional youth work provider and 45.7% working with another local community provider.

“Further evidence of partnership working can be shown through the extensive network of statutory and non-statutory partners such as the local council (58.7%), PSNI (56.5%), local church (50.0%) and Health and Social Care Trust (41.3%).”

The report highlights the effectiveness of partnerships by looking at a case study: The Enable Youth Project, delivered in partnership between YMCA Portadown, YMCA Lurgan and Craigavon Senior High School.

“Pupils in Year 11 from Craigavon Senior High School who have been identified as having poor wellbeing or at risk of educational underachievement attend the programme held in the YMCA Portadown Centre one day a week.

“The change of venue from school to youth centre is significant. The Centre provides an informal, safe space for young people to interact in smaller groups and to have in-depth conversations around the issues that affect their wellbeing.”

Collaboration between staff in both the YMCA and in Craigavon Senior High has been crucial in creating an environment where the participants feel comfortable, and in making this project work.

“Young people can participate in various activities that have been developed by qualified youth workers from the YMCA with the purpose of promoting positive mental health. Sessions cover understanding and managing stress, how to use affirmations and positive self-talk to build resilience and how to access support for their mental health and wellbeing. Goal setting is used to motivate young people to focus on the future and promote a sense of self-mastery and achievement.

“The participants have responded positively to the youth work approach as demonstrated by their high attendance rates and their positive engagement with both youth workers and other young people on the programme.”


The reports’ conclusions note that youth organisations currently provide a wide range of programmes and activities, including several dedicated to improving wellbeing.

Provision is versatile, good, volunteers are valued and valuable – and collaboration takes place, both between groups and with different agencies. But all of this could be better.

Recommendations include:

Strategic Vision - Priorities for Youth is the current main policy for youth work in NI, dating from 2013 – since when wellbeing has become more mainstream as a policy goal, and cooperative working has been seen as more valuable and made easier. It should be updated to strategically align with the Children and Young People’s Strategy 2020 – 2030 in which wellbeing is understood in a holistic way encompassing nearly all aspects of children and young people’s lives.

New Funding Model - New funding models need to be developed. This will increase the level of funding available from multiple statutory sources such as the Department of Health, Education and Communities, reduce the use of temporary, short-term funding in the voluntary sector, and support more work that improves the wellbeing of young people on a sustainable basis.

Workforce Development - Investment in the voluntary youth work sector workforce should be ongoing with a specific focus on: greater access to training (including a specific focus on raising awareness about factors that can negatively impact young people’s wellbeing); skills that can build sector capacity; understanding the contribution volunteers make and how to maximise their potential.

Supporting Partnerships – Creating ways for different organisations to communicate in the most efficient way should be a priority. Sharing ideas about best practice and building capacity can help drive improvements.

Partnerships with wider agencies are also important – schools, in particular, should be viewed as key partners for the voluntary youth work sector in order to make best use of resources and successfully improve services which meet the needs of young people.

Stephen Dallas, CEO of The Bytes Project, told Scope: “We need more research to reveal the hidden strategic capacity of the third sector… We need to build an evidence base that captures both the strength and capacity of the third sector to develop a new model of working which includes collaboration with others from the statutory sector and business to deliver effective public services.”

John Peacock, National Secretary of YMCA Ireland, said: “This research reflects the nature and extent of the work being carried out to support young people’s mental health directly after COVID restrictions were starting to lift in April 2021. We recognised that youth workers were providing lots of support for young people’s mental health at this time and we wanted to document this as a way to show the potential that the sector has to deliver this work alongside statutory agencies in the longer term.”

Tony Silcock, CEO of Youth Initiatives, said: “The results of the survey showcase the versatile and collaborative nature of the youth work sector.  We have youth workers engaging young people on the streets, working in local schools and in youth centres offering an extensive range of programmes and activities that support young people in an inclusive and accessible way.”

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.