New project addresses mental health needs of children in care

Published by  Communications

On 12th Feb 2021

Adolescents living in care could benefit from access to ‘life story work,’ to understand more about who they are and how their experiences have shaped them.  

A new project led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) will examine life story work as a possible intervention to address the mental health needs of children and young people with experience of being ‘looked-after’, and how best to put this into practice.  

With funding from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the LIMITLESS study aims to find out how, to what extent and for whom life story work could be delivered differently to improve mental health outcomes for adolescents in care. 

Dr Simon P Hammond, a Lecturer in Education in UEA’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning and Honorary Associate Professor at NSFT, is leading the project. It includes a paper, ‘Life story work for children and young people with care experience: A scoping review’, which is published today in the journal Developmental Child Welfare

There are currently more than 90,000 adolescents living in care in the UK. Little evidence exists to show whether or how well life story work benefits them, though this group is consistently reported to have higher mental health needs than their peers in the general population.  

Dr Hammond said: “Adolescents are the fastest growing age group entering the English social-care system and the group most at risk of poor mental health. Unaddressed mental health needs are one the biggest issues facing children and young people who have experience of living in care. 

“Improving the mental health, and mental health support, of adolescents looked-after is a health, social care and educational priority. 

“Life story work is widely valued by children and adolescents with experience of living in care, their carers and professionals - however many have also expressed major concerns about how this work is undertaken, and numbers of missing out.” 

The scoping review pulls together the available evidence in this area. But, Dr Hammond said, “We still do not know how, why, to what extent, for whom and in what circumstances life story work may help.”  

Life story work is currently delivered as a ‘high-intensity’ intervention, meaning it commonly relies on specialist professional input over a number of months. It also currently focuses on younger children, meaning there is minimal guidance available for adolescents.  

Dr Jon Wilson, Consultant Psychiatrist and NSFT Research Director and co-applicant on the LIMITLESS study, said: “As children and adolescent mental health services nationally remain chronically underfunded and demand for services continues to increase, better evidence on existing interventions and effective, low-intensity interventions are urgently needed. This is something the LIMITLESS study will address.” 

Mr Luke Rodgers BEM is Director of Strategy at The Care Leaders, a social enterprise that harnesses lived experience to create innovative projects so young people leave services in a better place than when they entered them. 

Mr Rodgers said: “Life story work is important because not every child will know about people in their family or have pictures or information about their own childhood and places they have lived. These are taken for granted things for many people but are massively important and can be devastating if they become lost. 

“I’m thrilled to be a part of this project and the way it will go about tackling this problem by working with those who have experienced children’s social care and life story work. 

“By understanding and giving a platform for the voices of those with lived experience, the project will gain knowledge to develop our services to best serve young people. This will help ensure children’s social care is meeting the needs of young people with experience of living in care.” 

The LIMITLESS study will review published and unpublished literature, as well as seeking the expert opinion of young adults who have lived in care, carers, social workers and mental health professionals. The information will be used to build and improve understanding of adolescent-focused low-intensity life story work.  

The LIMITLESS study will be led by UEA and NSFT, in collaboration with The Fostering Network, The Care Leaders, University of Oxford and University of Bath.  

The project is hosted by the Looked After Children's Mental Health Research Network (LANTERN), which is part of UEA Health and Social Care Partners (UEAHSCP). 

Life story work for children and young people with care experience: A scoping review’, is published 12 February 2021 in the journal Developmental Child Welfare.  

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