'It’s scary when you see your child in a very dark place' - Father plans to launch mental health organisation for teens after his daughter's struggles

James Stirk is planning to launch an organisation to support Yorkshire teenagers with their mental health after his daughter’s own struggles. Laura Reid reports.

James Stirk is planning to launch a mental health organisation to support adolescents. Photo: Ernesto Rogata

“If one of my three daughters had an accident and broke a limb, I could sit with a consultant and they could show me an x-ray of what’s wrong,” James Stirk suggests. “They could explain how they were going to address it and we’d all know what recuperation to work on to remedy the damage. I can visualise that. But mental health is an invisible enemy. It’s very hard for a family to deal with because you don’t really know how best to help.”

James is speaking from the heart, a dad left feeling helpless after one of his daughters began self-harming and struggling with anxiety four years ago in the run up to her GCSE exams. His family’s experience has prompted him to look at launching a new organisation to help adolescents.

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He hopes it will provide a “one-stop shop” of support for teens facing mental health difficulties. “There are so many challenges the pressures of school put any child under and there’s so much going on hormonally anyway that it’s a difficult time in anybody’s life,” he says.

James says he felt helpless at times seeing his daughter struggle with her mental health. Photo: Ernesto Rogata

“Being able to offer somebody all those services and discussions and viewpoints under the same roof, I believe will be transformational in helping young people.”

His daughter Rebecca, now 18, is set to be involved in the organisation, bringing the invaluable insight of her own lived experience to supporting others. James noticed a marked shift in her behaviour when she was 14-years-old.

“I think the catalyst for her concerns and anxiety was the 18 month lead up to her GCSEs...She became very reclusive, she didn’t want to be in a social environment. She’d always been an extrovert, very social, very chatty, with a great sense of humour and all that changed. The closer she got to her GCSEs, the more the situation escalated. We started to worry whether we could leave her by herself, the what if scenarios run through your head.”

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Two years ago, Rebecca, who is now undertaking a public services course at Reaseheath College in Cheshire, spent time in hospital and was seen by a mental health crisis support team and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Reflecting on her experience, James, who lives in the Harrogate district, says there are big challenges to address when it comes to mental health care.

“The mental health services provided by the NHS are at breaking point because the mental health problem across all age groups in the UK is prolific and it’s getting worse. Services expected to help and support these people are massively oversubscribed in terms of demand and massively underfunded.”

“Typically, it also seems that mental health services deal with a crisis,” he adds. “There almost has to be a crisis, someone trying to take their life or being hospitalised, before services get involved. I believe then it’s too late. We have to work as a society more proactively to recognise warning signs early and avoid that crisis point.”

Back in January 2020, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, published a report on the state of mental health services for young people, highlighting how access to service remained “the biggest issue”. In it, she stated how many children felt that getting through the front door for support and treatment was an “ordeal”.

“The stories I hear from children are...children repeatedly struggling to access help,” she wrote, “being turned away; given one appointment where they are told they are ‘not ill enough’ to qualify for services and offered ‘advice’ instead; children constantly feeling the need to justify why they should be getting help...The common story I hear is how mental health issues developed, and very often got worse, before they got any help.”

Since then, the Covid-19 crisis has compounded mental strain for many. A survey of 2,000 young people with a history of mental health needs, carried out by charity Young Minds in June, found 80 per cent of respondents said the pandemic had made their mental health worse.

Among more than 1,000 people who were accessing mental health support in the three months leading up the crisis (including from the NHS, school and university counsellors, private providers, charities and helplines), 31 per cent said they were no longer able to do so but felt they still needed help.

In his Spending Review in November, Chancellor Rishi Sunak recognised England’s mental health services as part of a £3bn package designed to aid the NHS’s recovery from the impact of Covid. Pledging £500m of support for the services, including funding for specialist provision for young people, he said the money would be used to “address waiting times for mental health services, give more people the mental health support they need, and invest in the NHS workforce” .

Still, James believes supporting people’s mental health will remain one of the biggest challenges as the country emerges from the Covid crisis. “The statistics around the number of young adults already suffering from a mental health condition are horrendous and all we’re seeing at the moment is that things are just going to compound and compound the longer Covid goes on,” he says. “The mental health issues may be more prolific than actual Covid itself in terms of how people across all age groups are feeling.”

James says one of the most difficult things initially was not knowing how best to help his daughter. “I didn’t understand why she was feeling the way she was or what was going on or even how to help as her dad,” he says. “As a parent it’s very scary when you see your child in a very dark place, feeling they need to scar and cut themselves to make themselves feel better.”

The family continues to learn about potential triggers for Rebecca and helps her develop coping strategies to manage how she’s feeling. “There is hope that she’s getting to the other side of this but we’re still acutely conscious of how we help and support her,” James says.

Through the new organisation, he hopes to provide other young people aged 14 to 19 and their families with a “safe space” to work together to better understand mental health issues and proactively manage wellness with the aim of avoiding crisis.

He hopes to “bring together all pieces of the jigsaw” under one roof, with the organisation offering mental health support, counselling, careers advice and life coaching for youngsters, as well as looking at how technology can be used to create an accessible wellbeing platform.

Currently exploring grants, charitable fundraising and income from private investors to help get the organisation off the ground, James is hoping to launch in Yorkshire later this year – and believes there could well be scope to roll out the model to other areas of the country at a later date.

“We want to get it right and make it happen in North Yorkshire first. As long as we start to make a difference and start this journey, it can only be a good thing. The sooner we can get this organisation off the ground and going, the sooner we can do something to help young people through a difficult time.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people, including those at risk of self-harm.

Early intervention and support is vital so we are training a new dedicated mental health workforce for schools and colleges across the country to support pupils to understand and look after their mental and physical health, as well as those who may be self-harming.

“We are putting an extra £2.3bn a year into mental health by 2023/24 to expand and transform mental health services for all ages through the NHS Long Term Plan.”

The department said NHS mental health services had remained open in the pandemic and services had deployed digital tools to support children and young people.

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