Improving the wellbeing of unaccompanied children seeking asylum: the importance of tailored, evidence-based support

Improving the wellbeing of unaccompanied children seeking asylum: the importance of tailored, evidence-based support

Following the publication of our evaluation of the Refugee Council’s My View Children’s Therapy, a specialised therapeutic service for unaccompanied children seeking asylum, our Chief Executive Dr Jo Casebourne reflects on the distinct challenges faced by this group of children and the need to invest in evidence-based support.

In March 2023, over 7,000 unaccompanied children seeking asylum were recorded as living in England. Despite increasing numbers – a 29% increase between 2022 and 2023 – unaccompanied children seeking asylum are too often falling through the gaps, and not receiving the support they need. We don’t always know how best to support this vulnerable group, but our new findings show a promising approach. Last week we published an evaluation which found that the Refugee Council’s My View Children’s Therapy a specialist therapeutic intervention, has positive impacts on the wellbeing of unaccompanied children seeking asylum, leading to improvements in mental health, social connections, sleep, diet and relaxation. While we know that interventions like My View are only one piece of a much larger picture, these findings show an effective way of supporting unaccompanied children seeking asylum, and we would like to see My View made more widely available across England, so that these children are given the wellbeing support they need. Our findings also act as a reminder on the importance of understanding what works to support vulnerable children and using this information to create systems of specialised, evidence-based support. The government needs to focus on proven and effective programmes to address the specific challenges faced by vulnerable children.

Unaccompanied children seeking asylum face significant and distinct challenges. Many will have experienced multiple or prolonged traumatic events and undertaken dangerous journeys in search of a safe environment. We know that these challenges don’t end upon arrival in the UK, with uncertainty of status, struggles to access support, and difficulties adjusting to their new environment further undermining their wellbeing. As a result, unaccompanied children seeking asylum are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems than their peers, often struggling with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. It’s important to remember that these are children in care, who should benefit from the same support as other looked after children. However, sadly this group often falls through the gaps of mental health provision, often due to obstacles accessing support, including distrust of authority and language barriers. In other circumstances, the provision offered lacks the necessary sensitivity to their unique circumstances, failing to take into account the reality of their experiences seeking asylum. Mental health support for children and young people must take into account the specific needs of each child, and understanding of how to ensure that unaccompanied children can access the right support at the right time is essential. Without the support they need – and deserve – these children can suffer from severe mental health problems and ultimately poorer wellbeing.

My View has now been shown to be an effective way of providing these children with the support they need. Delivered by the Refugee Council, My View aims to stabilise the psychological and emotional wellbeing of unaccompanied children through of specialised, creative therapy sessions. Our evaluation, conducted by Ipsos and the Centre for Evidence and Implementation (CEI), looked at the effectiveness, implementation, and costs of My View. Our randomised controlled trial found that The Refugee Council’s My View Children’s Therapy has a positive impact on the wellbeing of unaccompanied children seeking asylum, including improvements across a range of measures: psychological and emotional wellbeing, social connections, and sleep, diet and relaxation. We also heard from children themselves, who described in interviews how My View helped improve their mood, hopes for the future, sleep and eating habits, and ability to manage their emotions:

“I learned how to think about the future, about the present, and to plan for the future and to think better.”

Young person after receiving therapy through My View

We are calling for the Refugee Council’s My View Children’s Therapy to be made more widely available, and for an increased focused on specialised, evidence-based support for vulnerable children, which addresses their specific challenges. We have seen positive steps being taken to provide better support for this group of children: the Department for Education recently announced a second round of funding to enable local authorities to deliver mentoring programmes to unaccompanied children seeking asylum. Funding is most effective when it is invested in the support that is shown to work, and investing in the implementation of My View could help us better protect the wellbeing of unaccompanied children seeking asylum into the future.

The UK is facing a mental health emergency, with the number of children in mental health crisis in England hitting a record high last year. Ensuring that children are provided with mental health and wellbeing support that is grounded in high-quality evidence must be a priority for the next government. Providing effective support for the wellbeing of vulnerable children cannot wait.

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