The Value of Youth Services towards Child and Adolescent Mental Health


Below is an article I wrote for Youth & Policy last year, whilst employed by the youth service:

There are small snippets of research showing some benefits, an example being Mahoney and Stattin (2002), who show the value of after school activities on depressed unattached youth, and Fite et al (2011), who link attending youth programmes as a buffer against depressive symptoms in young people developing in deprived areas.

Coulston (2010) appreciated the affinity between youth work and promoting mental health, and published a report, detailing some of the ways in which Youth Work can help prevent young people from developing mental health problems. They identify how youth clubs can help to develop and strengthen young people’s resilience, reduce young people from adversely negative social-demographic factors, and also help prevent young people with ‘low level’ mental health problems from developing a more severe mental health problem. They also indicate that youth clubs can help promote mental health awareness and also assist in young people getting access to more specialised mental health services.

I also remember reading the government’s 10 year strategy for youth services (DfCSF 2007), and becoming somewhat hopeful, as that paper placed some emphasis on the role that Youth Services can bring to building resilience in youth through developing Social and Emotional skills.

This identification of social and emotional skill development through youth services was spot on, and I looked forward to the youth work profession vocalising their suitability for this approach. However, the profession did not seem to recognise or appreciate this, and as a result little more seemed to be said on the contribution of youth services to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). This is a shame, as the evidence from Social and Emotional Learning theory, inadvertently gives significant credence to Youth Work’s role in promoting Social and Emotional Learning.

So where does Youth Work fit in to this when compared to SEL competencies? Firstly a brief look at the core values of Youth Work may highlight some links. Resourcing Excellent Youth Services (DfES 2002) summarises some of the core values; Young people choose to be involved; it starts where young people are at; it encourages critical thinking and exploration and recognises and respects communities and cultures. It seeks to help build stronger relationships, as well as collective identities, and is concerned with the feelings and attitudes of young people. It aims to empower young people, respects and values individual differences, and can work with other relations in young people’s lives such as family or school. (Adapted from DfES 2002).

For me, seeing these values in practice, as well as having an awareness of SEL theory proclaims their similarities. Martinovich (2006) provides a useful breakdown of SEL by saying that it consists of three competencies; Self-awareness, Social Awareness and interaction, and Self-management. A closer look then at how Youth Work compares with specific SEL competencies will make my point clearer, and I will begin with Martinovich’s first competency of self-awareness.

Martinovich defines self- awareness as “ awareness of self and own emotions, ability to decode, understand and label emotions, self-regulation, communication, self-motivation, realistic and positive sense of self (Martinovich 2006,43). Young (2006) captures Youth Work’s role in fulfilling this succinctly by saying that it helps; “young people to see themselves” (Young 2006,75), and it encourages young people to examine their values and morals as well as their sense of self. As well as unmasking self-image, Youth Work aims to help develop a positive self-concept through challenging negative self- perceptions and providing opportunities to discover positive strengths. Bamfield (2007) says that Youth Work can “transform young people’s outlook and dispositions” (Bamfield 2007,20).

Through working for statutory and voluntary youth work organizations, in a wide range of scenarios from traditional generic youth work drop in sessions, through to working with young people being sexually exploited, I have found that youth work is ideal for working on the competency of self-awareness. Youth workers through discussions in informal one to one or group work settings, discuss and explore young people’s perceptions of themselves, and encourage reflection on comments or behaviours perhaps signalling some self-belief. The skill of youth workers lies often in their ability to come alongside young people, and this skill, particularly when employed consistently with young people over extended periods, is pivotal in building new positive attachments for young people. Garbarino et al (1992) presents how an attachment with a supportive adult can help build self-esteem and resilience with children exposed to high levels of family and community violence. Similarly, Luxmoore (2008) disagrees with a view of poor early attachment being definitively conclusive in regards to a young persons self-esteem. He shows how professionals and other supportive adults can build new healthy attachments with young people, which can bolster and reinforce a new and more positive sense of self.

Martinovich’s second SEL category is social awareness and interaction, which she defines as; “awareness of others, ability to ‘decode’, understand and respect their perspective, appreciating the differences of others, (and) collaboration (Martinovich 2006,43)”. Jeffs & Smith (1999) say that building relationships is central to Youth Work, and emphasis is put on the relationship between youth worker and young person to equip young people for their own relationships, and Merton et al (2004) presents how Youth Work helps provide key relationship building skills.

Within Youth Work, relationship skills are often taught within group work settings, providing a safe place for young people to learn and reflect on practical experience. Youth workers also often work with young people on a one to one basis, which gives space and safety for young people to talk through their emotions. This act of talking between youth worker and young person is considered by some as therapeutic in itself (Jeffs & Smith 2005). Youth Workers also at times provide constructive feedback about relationship skills which include empathy awareness. In discussing the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies Program, Kusche & Greenberg (2001) asserts how having increased empathy can help improve interpersonal skills, meaning they are more likely to become part of a social group, and so accordingly achieve a sense of belonging.

Martinovich’s third category is self-management, defied as “problem solving, decision making, realistic analysis, ability to set and work toward goals (Martinovich 2006:43)”. Larson (2000) discusses how positive youth activities can lead to increased motivation, autonomy and initiative, and Bamfield (2007) shows how non formal education can lead to skills in motivation, aspiration, self-determination and self-control. Through Youth Work led group work activities, young people are often tested and challenged around self-control, as well as this learning being fostered in an environment governed by rules and boundaries. The youth work method at times uses young people derived goal oriented tasks, such as organising a camping trip, or a funding or arts project. These types of activities, facilitated by youth workers, are great for young people learning to handle conflicts, or disappointments and upsets.

Without writing considerably more, it is hard to fully capture the many facets of the Youth Work approach, but what is salient is that Youth Work begins where young people are at and responds to them in the multitudinous contexts that they find themselves in.

Youth Work can occur in schools, communities, with groups or individuals. It can make use of targeted projects, outdoor education or indoor activities. It can use arts, sports, volunteering, be based on the street or in centres. It can cover power, justice, inequality, health, the environment or local community issues (See Devon Youth Service 2006), as well as a host of other informal learning topics.

It seems clear to me that there is an ever increasing need for SEL approaches to be applied to our children and young people, and schools may be a good place to consider implementing SEL programs. However, Shute (2012) identifies some existing barriers to this, including the need to ensure that SEL programs in schools are evidence based.

I have presented how local authority and voluntary youth services are best placed, and best experienced, to respond to the need to develop SEL competencies in our youth. Given the government’s claim to recognise the value of early intervention in regards to mental health (HMG 2011), would not this early intervention be better delivered more widely by Youth Services?

There may be challenges with this approach. Some Youth Workers may perceive a greater emphasis on mental health as a threat to their professional identity, or there may be an expectation of greater workloads or commitments. However, the only change that I can see as necessary is in how Youth Services capture and communicate their contribution towards SEL competencies.

What would be helpful then is further training and awareness for Youth Workers, on the contribution that they make towards child and adolescent mental health, as well as further research and exploration around this topic in general. Also, given the need and trend for greater partnership working among services working with children and young people, greater collaboration between the youth and mental health work professions is essential.


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.

Garbarino, J., Dubrow, N., Kostelny, K., and Pardo, C. (1992). Children in danger. Coping with the consequences of community violence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence. Why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
HM government (2011) No Health without Mental Health. A cross-government mental health outcomes strategy for people of all ages. London: Dept of Health

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.

Kusche, C. A. and Greenberg, M. T. (2001) PATHS in Your Classroom: Promoting Emotional Literacy AND Alleviating Emotional Distress. In Cohen, J. (ed) (2001) Caring Classrooms/Intelligent Schools. The social emotional Education of Young Children. London: Teachers College Press: 140-161

Luxmoore, N. (2008). Feeling Like Crap. Young People and the meaning of Self Esteem. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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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