Westminster: Providing early mental health support

Westminster City Council are piloting a scheme in schools to improve access to early information and support for children on mental health as well as ensuring there are mental health workers in youth hubs.


Westminster City Council has extended the amount of early mental health support it provides to children and young people in the London borough. Alongside school-based mental health support teams, there are now mental health workers in youth hubs and a pilot under way in schools to improve access to early information and support.

Improving support in the community

The mental health and wellbeing of children and young people has seen a decline in recent years, especially since the start of the pandemic. Data published by NHS Digital suggests that in the UK the number of children and young people with a probable mental health disorder has risen to one in six, from one in nine in 2017.

In partnership with NHS colleagues, Westminster was one of the early adopters of the national school-based mental health support teams initiative. It started rolling them out in 2018 and now has the teams in 33 primary and secondary schools. The practitioners, supplied by the charity Mind, provide drop-in and one-to-one support to pupils, parents and teachers and encourage a whole school approach to tackling mental health issues.

Listening to feedback from partners and stakeholders, Westminster explored what else could be done in the community amid concern about the impact of the pandemic. A key finding, as one young person put it, is that young people “don’t like the ‘one size fits all’ approach” instead they like to access mental health support in a way that best suits their individual needs. This has paved the way for a number of initiatives including the recruitment of mental health support workers in the borough’s five youth hubs.

Children’s Services Strategic Commissioner Marjana Tharin said: “We know some children do not feel comfortable asking for help in schools so we decided we wanted to extend the support available in the community. Getting early support helps prevent problems getting worse.

“The youth clubs are really popular so we replicated what was being done in schools with the two workers dividing their time between the clubs. They also provide training to the youth workers at the hubs so they are better equipped to support the young people using the facilities.”

Having the support in place has been of huge help to parents like Sam (not her real name). “A lot has been happening in our family life recently which I have been concerned could negatively affect my daughter. She loves going to the youth club and its staff have always been welcoming and supportive, but the addition of a mental health youth worker has been amazing as we have had access to specialist support in a place that we feel safe and comfortable and the worker has been able to develop a personal relationship with my daughter to really understand her needs rather than receiving support in a more clinical, impersonal way.”

On top of this all residents aged between 11 and 25 years old have free access to the Kooth online counselling service. This digital service allows young people to anonymously access support and provides resources for self-help, peer-to peer support and one-on-one online counselling with professionals.

How a keyring is helping pupils

Meanwhile, a pilot project has been run this year looking at the benefits of providing young people with access to mental health support via a wellbeing keyring.

Studies have shown that young people like to learn about or access mental health services in a way that is non-stigmatising, through open access and based in community settings.

In response, Westminster has trialled providing pupils at three schools with a wellbeing keyring, which enables young people to scan a QR code that takes them to a dedicated council webpage, Emotional wellbeing support for young people.

The resource explains in simple terms the range of support available to young people and the many different ways they can access it, whether on the phone, in person or via live chat. Settings were also sent leaflets and posters to raise awareness about the pilot and Children’s Mental Health Week, while Mind and Kooth run dedicated assemblies and workshops in the schools.

More than 4,000 students were given the keyrings and, although the impact of the trial is currently being evaluated, the anecdotal feedback has been positive so far. The keyrings have been described as a “great starter of conversations”.

The council’s education psychology service also provides training and development to schools by equipping teaching support assistants to become emotional literacy support assistants, allowing them to better support the social, emotional and mental health needs of the children they work with.

“It is a programme we have been involved with for some time, but it is best delivered through face-to-face training. However, during much of the pandemic that has not been possible so we will be starting a refresher programme in September,” Ms Tharin added.

‘We’re determined to do everything we can’

The council also works closely with the local NHS child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) with information and projects shared and discussed at its joint partnership board.

The mental health workers in both schools and the youth clubs can refer directly into the service, while the provider of CAHMS, the Central North West London NHS Trust, has recently launched an all-age urgent mental health advice line. The line is open 24/7 for young people and their parents to get urgent support and advice from trained mental health advisers.

Ms Tharin said there is a clear need for the extra support. “We have seen an increase in children accessing our early intervention service. Some of that could be down to more people talking about mental health now and better promotion of the service, both of which are good things, but clearly mental health has got worse too.

“We are determined to do everything we can to help our children and young people feel happy and positive about their futures.”

Contact details

Marjana Tharin, Children’s Services Strategic Commissioner, Westminster City Council: marjana.tharin@rbkc.gov.uk