A BASINGSTOKE mental health charity has warned that, while a full return of pupils to schools is ‘brilliant’, we have only seen the ‘cusp’ of the pandemic’s ‘fall-out’ for young people.

Samantha Hussey, chief executive of YPI counselling, said that, while many children are pleased to be returning to a school environment, the transition will impact upon them in multiple ways.

YPI is a mental health counselling and mentoring service which operates in the Basingstoke area for young people aged 11 to 25.

In October, the Gazette spoke to Jade Smith, the organisation’s youth mentoring team leader, who warned of the impact of the pandemic on the town’s teenagers.

Now, Samantha says these “high levels of need” are still increasing, as new issues associated with the return to schools arise.

“We are getting high levels of need,” she said.

“In the first lockdown, I had a few counsellors saying to me ‘what do you want us to do?’, there were clients who had been on the waiting list for a while.

“For some of them, the issue was school and everything associated with school. Then there were the young people who were desperate to do their GSCEs and were really struggling.”

Speaking of the current trends in referrals for support, she continued: “I think there will be quite a lot of anxiety to do with going back to school.

“Getting on the school bus, meeting people. Of course, there are some who are more vulnerable from being at home and haven’t accessed school either so that is a challenge, but generally kids feel quite safe at home. It’s boring, but it’s easier in that they can snack when they want, they can pick things for themselves, all of these little things.

“Some people are looking forward to going back [to school] and seeing their friends, A lot of people we counsel have anxieties about things like that so, being at home, those anxieties are not as prevalent. Getting up a certain time and looking a certain way, it can be very demanding. Back in friendship groups, getting used to being there. It is going to be really tiring. By the end of the week, for a little while, they are going to be absolutely exhausted.

“They haven’t been going out and socialising anywhere else. They haven’t had to fend for themselves or interact with others. If you have siblings, that probably really helps, but then they get bored of each other as well. It’s important to be with other young people the same age as you and not be sitting in your room, being stuck on a computer. And that’s what they have all had to do.”

Speaking about the longer-term impact of this lack of social contact on Basingstoke’s young people, Samantha warned we are yet to see the full extent of consequences.

She said: “It’s really interesting how this whole thing has affected young people. This is just the cusp of it - there will be long-term repercussions on young people’s mental health, whatever age they are. The opportunities are not out there for the older ones, and there is a lot of uncertainty. Not getting out enough or getting enough exercise, we all feel it and, for young people, it’s so important.

“Referrals have been coming in thick and fast. We are having a lot of much higher-level clients since all of this has happened. There is a definite trend towards that. It was already increasing before, possibly down to things like social media. I am looking to be able to offer more sessions and things like that [as a result].”

Samantha says that, from her experience, schools are doing a good job of easing children into the transition of returning to school.

“I think schools on the whole are very aware of trying to make them feel as welcome as possible. I think it’s difficult in secondary school as they are expected to wear facemasks and take tests, and there will be anxieties around those new things too,” she said.

“In many schools they have had classes talking about worries and concerns and I think that’s really important. I think it’s really important that we link up with as many schools as we can, and help in any way.”

However, she hopes the importance of prioritising mental health will also be recognised on a larger scale, adding: “I think it all comes top-down. Schools are going to be put under a lot of pressure to ‘catch up’ from an education point of view. That will filter down, and students may feed off that.

“That’s the thing that needs to be addressed. It’s more about mental health, social interaction. They will catch up. It will be ok. Teachers are very good at making sure it’s ok, and they don’t need this additional stress.

“Everyone is talking about mental health in young people at the moment, and I just wonder if we are going to see that followed through with proper funding. We are looking long-term, this is something we need to prepare for a much longer timescale. There is going to be a big fall-out from all of this. It’s brilliant that they are back to school, and needed. But I don’t think it’s a case of saying, oh they’re back to school now everything is fine.”

Summing up how the charity hopes to continue supporting young people despite increasing waiting lists and financial pressure, Samantha said: “We are always looking to spread the word that we are here as much as possible. We are the only non-statutory [mental health counseling] body in the area and we are for everybody.”

The charity is currently looking to rent a space in central Basingstoke to allow it to do more face-to-face sessions in a Covid-secure way.

“We have lots of ideas of how we can continue to help with people’s mental health, but a lot of it depends on new and creative ways of securing funding.”