Working with Young People

I had the following printed in the Careers section of the Psychologist in Dec 2013: (

I am currently a Youth Worker within Plymouth City Council, and have been a youth worker for the last 7 years. Since completing my Psychology Degree in 2005, and having worked in some diverse youth work environments, the impressions that mental health can leave in the various contexts of a young person’s life has always captured my attention.

I began my paid employment within Devon Youth Service, which involved staffing generic drop in sessions for young people aged between 13-18 in Tavistock Devon, and then went onto work in a similar generic youth drop in setting for Plymouth City Council. Within the context of an open access and generic session, young people just turned up, and would engage with youth workers in social settings, perhaps playing pool, cooking, fashioning art work or other similar activities. My interactions with young people recurrently included discussions around their social, familial and educational relationships. I would also respond first hand to conflicts and tensions arising from young people’s relationships or due to young people’s emotional and behaviour difficulties. It was within this generic youth work environment, underpinned by some of Youth Work’s core values such as; starting where young people are at; being young people led; voluntary and focussing on empowerment, that I realised the contribution that Youth Work accomplished towards reinforcing Social and Emotional competencies in Young People.

After completing a MA in Youth and Community Work, I undertook some work for the Prevention team within the Youth Offending Service in Plymouth, with my role being around preventing young people at risk of crime from becoming further entrenched in criminal behaviour. This role was much more targeted, and I worked with young people on a one to one basis, after creating intervention plans aimed at reducing specific offending behaviours. What I encountered was often an inter-mixture of aggressive and violent behaviours within the multifarious contexts of their lives. Within this role I became sympathetic to Psychodynamic concepts, particularly in working with suppressed and unconscious beliefs which were often fuelling aggressive behaviours. Espousing a youth work approach within this role saw me employing skills to foster positive relationships with young people, to create a climate where greater self-awareness can be cultivated, through a trusting fellowship. The value of this approach with adolescents is overlooked, as although adolescents’ identity is considered less established than the average adult, and their self-awareness less concrete, the approach can prevent cognitions becoming buried beneath an adults life experiences, thus preventing more serious psychological disturbances developing.

Soon after I joined the Intensive Support Team, again within Plymouth City Council. The focus of this role was to prevent homelessness amongst young people aged 16-17, who were either homeless or at risk of homelessness. Referrals would range from being non-urgent, where the young person would still be at home, but were at risk of homelessness, to significantly more urgent where the young person may have already been kicked out of home. These referrals were often the most challenging, as we would have to respond immediately, and would meet a young person and their family right in the thick of significant emotional and familial turmoil.

There were a considerable variety of purported reasons for why a young person was being made homeless, with a breaking of rules and boundaries being common. However, investigation often revealed complex and multifarious contributors to homelessness, which often included considerable mental health problems within the family. Common diagnoses were of schizophrenia; personality disorders; anxiety and depressive disorders; stress and other arguably undiagnosed ‘disorders’.

The way in which we responded and dealt with these situations were aligned to concepts from Systemic Theory, and the idea of a family’s homeostasis being threatened by adolescents changing identities seemed particularly pertinent in many situations. Responding to families from a neutral perspective and looking at the situation in terms of the wider family and social system certainly resulted in the most successful outcomes, and I learnt to adopt similar techniques used in Systemic Therapy such as reframing, and using solution focussed approaches.

I am currently still working with adolescents within Plymouth City Council, but have recently embarked on work with young people who have been returned home by police after being reported missing. Our role is to follow this up, investigating the motivating factors for running, and preventing situations of significant risk. As in previous roles, there are a wide variety of reasons why young people go missing, which can include sexual exploitation, substance misuse, and abuse at home. However, as in previous roles the noticeability of mental health and psychological disturbances is consistent, with self-harm behaviours seeming to be particularly common. Concepts from Attachment Theory seem to be markedly conforming for this role, with many young people having poor or non-existent relationships with their parents. A significant aspect of this role will be tackling some of the negative offshoots which arise from insecure attachments, such as negative self-concepts, as well as providing opportunities for young people to form new attachments.

What has become transparent and unquestionable in my experience, is the significant contribution that Youth Workers make towards preventing and even treating psychological disturbances in young people, often without realising they are doing so. I find it frustrating that this contribution is not more recognised nationally. What I would like to see is greater collaboration between youth workers and the mental health profession, with increased opportunities for Youth Workers to receive clinical supervision and training. To its credit, Plymouth is forward thinking in its approach to this, with youth workers having had training in CBT, Family therapy, and other general training run by CAMHS and Broadreach. Some Youth Workers, including myself, are even receiving clinical supervision. This approach needs to continue to be developed, and also be adopted by other authorities, as its effects will give Youth Workers greater therapeutic impact on Young People’s lives, plus a greater voice in justifying the Youth Work profession.

Bamfield , A. (2007) The contribution of Non Formal learning to young people’s life chances. Leicester: NYA.

Coulston, K. (2010) Somewhere to talk, somewhere to listen. The role of youth clubs in supporting the mental health and Emotional Wellbeing of young people. London: Clubs for Young People.

Department for children, schools and families (DfCSF), (2007) Aiming high for young people: a ten year strategy for positive activities. London: HM Treasury.

Department for Education and Skills (DfES), (2002) Transforming Youth Work. Resourcing Excellent Youth Services. London: DfES.

Devon Youth Service, (2006) Youth Work in Devon. A practical guide to the youth work curriculum. Exeter: Devon Youth Service.

Fite, P. J., Vitulano, M. L. and Preddy, T. M. (2011) The positive impact of attending a community-based youth program on child depressive symptoms. Journal of Community Psychology. Vol. 39, No. 7: 804-814.

Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence. Why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1999) Informal education: conversation, democracy and learning. (Second ed.) Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (2005) Informal education: conversation, democracy and learning. (Third ed.) Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

Mahoney, M.A. and Stattin, H. (2002) Structured after school activities as a moderator of depressed mood for adolescents with detached relations to their parents. Journal of Community Psychology. Vol. 30, No. 1: 69 – 86.

Martinovich, J. (2006) Creative Expressive Activities and Asperger’s Syndrome. Social and Emotional Skills and Positive Life Goals for Adolescents and Young Adults. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Merton, B. (2004) An evaluation of the impact of youth work in England. London: DfES

Shute, R. H. (2012) Promoting mental health through schools. The Psychologist. Vol. 25, No. 10: 752-756.

Young, K. (1999) The Art of Youth Work. London: Russell House Publishing.


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