Fear and anxiety are the main reasons that millions of children around the world contact child helplines, signalling a need for more collaboration between helplines and traditional mental health services to effect better outcomes for children.
Almost 15 million contacts were made to 116 child helplines in 2014 with fear and anxiety the main problem reported by 17 per cent of the children and adolescents who reached out for help, according to the latest data publication from global network Child Helpline International (CHI).
Peer relationships, sexuality and sexual awareness issues were also a common reason for young people to contact a helpline. Twice as many girls as boys contacted helplines and more than half of all those who made contact were aged between 13 and 15 years old.
Cycle of suffering
Paul Gilligan, chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, who has a background in child protection and children’s rights advocacy, contributed to the latest CHI publication with a paper exploring the key role child helplines play in breaking the cycle of suffering and the importance of linking helplines with traditional mental health services.
“The fact that mental health and psychosocial issues were the most common reasons for children to call helplines around the world is a bit of a wake-up call. This reinforces the need for a more comprehensive response that meets the needs of children.
“While child helplines have tended to stand alone up until now or were seen solely as being in the child-protection arena, the CHI report recommends linking these services with more traditional mental health services.
“Childline Ireland is a good example, they deal with a lot of child-protection issues, but more and more they are focusing on mental health support,” he says.
Research from the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) has shown that one in three children in Ireland will experience a mental health issue, rising to one in two teenagers and young adults. However, Gilligan points out that about one in 10 children and adolescents will experience mental health difficulties severe enough to impact on their quality of life and wellbeing and require specialist care.
“For a significant number of children struggling with fear and anxiety or concerns over sexuality for example, an immediate contact with a caring person who gives appropriate advice and guidance may be the only intervention they need.
“By not addressing the issues at this stage, many will go on to develop more serious issues and present to the traditional mental health services at a later stage. For those who need more support, the child helplines can provide a gateway to the help they need.”
Figures presented at a recent conference on self harm at St Patrick’s (Short-term pain is a long-term suicide risk, March 1st, 2016) showed that 40 per cent of people who present with self harm at an emergency department and receive an assessment, do not continue self harming – that one intervention is enough.
“Take a young person who phones in because he is being bullied for being gay. To hear a voice telling him he is not alone, that there are lots of other people out there like him, and to point him to support services may be all he needs,” Gillian says.
Despite advances in technology, the CHI data shows that the majority of contacts made to childlines are still made through the telephone as opposed to online chat services and texts.
While Gilligan predicts a significant shift in the way young people contact helplines over the next five years, he points out that hearing a voice on the other end of the phone is a very different dynamic for a child in distress to seeing text on a screen.
“Demand for child and adolescent mental health services in this country is rising (up 49 per cent from June 2014 to May 2015), with more than 2,000 children on a waiting list at any given time, and more than 1,300 waiting over three months.
“The CAMHS teams are not fully resourced to do the job they are being asked to do and there is a need for a more cohesive response.
“If we brought child helplines, voluntary and not-for-profit organisations like ourselves together, there is no doubt we would provide a better service for children that meets their needs.”
Reaching the young male population is a challenge across cultures for many services, and the CHI report notes that the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) has started to address this issue.
Recognising that boys in distress often present with externalised anger and depression, the ISPCC has started training staff to focus on the hidden needs behind this initial aggression, while assertively guarding their own boundaries.