Research consistently shows that material, social and racial disadvantages increase risk of poorer wellbeing and mental health problems, and the risk of offending. Young people in the youth justice system are three times as likely to have an unmet mental health need. Yet mental health and social care for these young people is limited, short-lived and often via criminal justice or acute care (e.g. compulsory admissions). Young people rarely have access to the help they need, and when they do it tends to be pathologising and temporary, creating further barriers to accessing support.
Project Future is a community-based holistic wellbeing and mental health service commissioned to address some of these inequalities. It aims to improve young people’s wellbeing, access to services, and education, employment and training opportunities with the long-term aim of reducing marginalisation and offending. Project Future is situated in Haringey in one of the ten most deprived wards in the UK, with high rates of inadequate housing, homelessness, crime, children living in care, unemployment and mental health difficulties. Project Future has been funded by Big Lottery Fund to work with young men aged 16-25 with experiences of the criminal justice system, specifically those exposed to serious youth violence or labelled “gang-affiliated”. Project Future has been coproduced alongside young men in the community, underpinned by the ethos that they are experts in their own lives and are best placed to know what would support their community.
Centre for Mental Health evaluated the project for three years and this report details our findings.
What affects young people’s wellbeing?
The way young people are treated by the media and society as “criminals” and exposed to racial and class prejudices undermine their wellbeing:
“Society sees you as a gang member. Everyone sees you like that. Like I was walking home and I had my hood up because it’s cold and you walk past a woman and she, like, clutches her bag tighter. Like I’m not going to do anything, but that's the way society looks at you.”
This was consistently described in school, criminal justice, council and mental health services, where help was often poorly resourced and short-lived, leaving people feeling judged, unsupported, labelled and unsafe:
“If you say to a child ‘you won’t amount to much’, they’ll go home thinking that and they’ll start believing it. They won’t be anything - the teacher’s said that and they are older and have more knowledge so you’ve crushed them…” Young people described the daily and normal nature of violence and threat to safety in their community, resulting in living in “high threat mode”, “paranoia” and “trauma”:
“A lot of young people have PTSD but this only gets associated with soldiers…but I’ve seen friends bleed out in front of me and they’ve seen me bleed out in front of them and it’s traumatising but it has to become normal otherwise you’d have a breakdown.”
Young people described the importance of their family and friends in providing support and love, their experiences of losing them through death and imprisonment, and constantly seeing their family struggle to make ends meet:
“I hated the environment I was in. Seeing my mum work two jobs, missing meals, it made me sick and I wanted better for myself…”
Many talked of feeling stuck, powerless, judged and hopeless:
“Young people are looking for a way out. You don’t want to keep walking down the road watching your back or walking down the road with a knife. You want to be able to go to a shop on your road to get milk and feel comfortable.
People don’t want to be in this situation, but they were put in this situation because of the area they were born into…”
Despite these obstacles, young people described their resilience in navigating this complex and dangerous world:
“I don’t think some people could walk in my shoes, I think a lot of people would crumble going through what I have…”
What impact did Project Future have?
198 young people have worked with Project Future over three years and the following outcomes have been observed:
Mental health and wellbeing: The young people who accessed Project Future faced multiple and complex challenges, which affected their mental health and wellbeing. Throughout the course of this project, there was a striking and statistically significant reduction in needs that relate to mental health and wellbeing. This reduction in needs was more pronounced for young people who had been accessing the project for the longest period of time.
Access to services: Two-thirds of the young people accessed another service via Project Future, including the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), housing, Citizens Advice, sexual health, primary care, mental health and benefits services.
Access to education, employment and training: Half of the young people are currently accessing education, employment and training. Threequarters have accessed support from Project
Future for this, primarily around job searching and applications, business support, career development, and interview preparation and attendance. Employment and volunteering opportunities through Project Future were perceived to provide ‘stepping stone’ experiences of work.
Reducing offending: Community and criminal justice stakeholders reported perceived reduction of offending amongst young people attending Project Future. Young people report the importance of Project Future in providing a safe space, routine, purpose and opportunities, and in actively addressing risk factors (e.g. support to get their driving licence reducing their need to walk and carry a weapon), in reducing offending.
Working with systems: Stakeholders reported shifts in their perceptions of the young people, which influenced how they approached interventions with this group.
Why is Project Future perceived to work?
Project Future was perceived to be an environment that made young people feel safe, respected, accepted, provided with opportunities, empowered, special, supported and listened to. This enabled young people to see themselves in different ways, access new opportunities, and envision and work towards a “future self”.
A supportive and holistic space, where young people are genuinely cared about, and helped through tailored support:
“They are genuinely interested in what you want to do. I was doing one-to-ones and they would ask me ‘What do you want to achieve? How do you want to achieve it?’, asking questions to find out what would work for me… finding a tailormade plan for me...”
A safe space, where young people are psychologically and physically safe because of the discreet location, peer referral system, and confidential and transparent support:
“Project Future is a safe space that has an impact on your wellbeing, and from safe you can advance and do what you wanna do … until you’ve got the basics met, you can’t advance …”
A family and community space, where young people are made to feel special, valued, looked after and like they belong:
“… It’s brought everyone closer together as friends. Before it used to be…all of us close as a gang but this has brought us more close as friends. I don’t feel like I’m part of a gang, I feel like I’m part of friends. Feel like a community…”
An accepting and respectful space, where young people are not judged or seen as problems, shifting how they saw themselves, allowing for different thinking and interactions to take place:
“If you’re treated like a little boy, you’ll act like a little boy. If you’re treated like an animal you’ll act like an animal. Here you’re treated like a man, so you act like a man…”
A legitimate space, where young people feel productive, a sense of achievement and see the project as opening doors to a future where they can be “legit” by providing different experiences and opportunities:
“…it put a smile on my face…this is meant to be for me, this is my life, these are my dreams, I can be successful in a legit way. I never thought I’d be doing that…”
An empowering space, where young people’s voices are listened to across multiple areas of their life:
“It made me feel important, like I do have a say in the community. I’ve never really presented to anyone above me before...so for them to be listening to it and find an interest, it put a smile on my face.”
• Project Future requires long-term investment to effectively meet the community's needs and to address intergenerational poverty, inequality and violence.
• Local authorities, NHS commissioning bodies, Police and Crime Commissioners and others should pool budgets to offer long-term funding to projects designed to engage and support marginalised young people.
• Every NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnership should include at least one project built on Project Future’s principles to reach its most marginalised communities.
• Mental health service providers and commissioners should develop services for young people using the key principles of Project Future.
• Schools need to be ‘psychologically informed’, with staff who are trained in understanding and addressing trauma, stress and distress, and ready access to mental health practitioners to provide help to children with behavioural difficulties.
• The Department for Education should embed ‘life lessons’ into the PSHE curriculum and consult with young people to find alternatives to school exclusions.
• Police forces need resources to invest in recruiting, training and supporting officers to understand and address the complexities in young people’s lives.
• Prisons need a profound culture shift to prioritise wellbeing and rehabilitation in order to stop the cycle of offending: this should include equipping staff to deal with young people’s complex needs, providing psychological support universally, and supporting young people with education and employment ready for when they leave.
• Probation services need the resources to build relationships with young people and provide more joined-up support to reduce their risk of reoffending.
• Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships should provide effective employment support for young people, embedded in community services built on Project Future’s principles.
• The Department for Work and Pensions should review and seek to reduce the extent of employer discrimination against people with criminal records.