Befriending Young People and Families

With social services under strain, and a growing mental health crisis, Joy Roxborough shares how churches can fill the gap to support young people and families

At the risk of sounding cynical, as I contemplate British society today I observe it is largely broken. It seems that major chunks of the workforce are engaged in strike action or in recurring irresolvable wage negotiations. Then when they are at work, people are for the most part engrossed in soul-destroying circuits on hamster wheels. This does not bode well for people who use services. Ask yourself, for instance, how well did you feel listened to the last time you managed to get a GP appointment? Was it a rushed experience, or did you feel there was sufficient time allocated to deal adequately with your concern?

In the meantime, more people – especially Black people – are slipping further into poverty. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, nearly half of households in the UK, headed by someone from a Black African background (42%), were in poverty in 2019/20 and 2021/22.

The situation is no less harrowing for young people in education and early career positions, and the gravity of this is reflected in soaring figures of those affected by poor mental health. The NHS has reported supporting more than 700,000 children and young people with their mental health in 2023.

Further, in a survey of 1,203 children and young people in 2023, NHS England reported that 20.3% of eight- to 16-year-olds; 23.3% of 17- to 19-year-olds; and 21.7% of 20- to 25-year-olds had a probable mental disorder. A likely repercussion of these statistics is a social care system that is bursting at the seams with referrals, and an ever-increasing burden on social workers to put out fires. Indeed, social workers are one of the chief group of workers wearing themselves out on the relentless hamster wheels.

As a trained social worker, I am particularly concerned about the brokenness of that system – both for workers as well as for service users and, in this instance, young people. As the burden on services, especially for children, is increasing, qualifying thresholds are also being raised. This means that even fewer children and young people are being given the much-needed assistance they and their families need. As social workers leave the profession in droves, it can be easy to see that the long-term repercussions for society in general can be devastating.

As Christians, is there anything the Church can do about all this? I would say a resounding “Yes!”

In the first instance, individuals could take it upon themselves to draw alongside families and/or specific young people in their local churches and offer themselves as informal mentors, based on friendship. This could go a long way to affording young people the luxury of having people they can look up to if and when they need to talk through issues. Having such mentors could also serve to inspire young people to alternative lifestyle choices, rather than being left to purely succumb to peer influences.

I think such interventions are particularly timely, because our collective increased engagement is social media which has left many of us connected electronically but isolated in reality. According to Campaign to End Loneliness, loneliness is higher among the 16- to 24-year-old age group, with other caveats also contributing to the problem.

In the second instance, as Christians, we could also take it upon ourselves to befriend families and young people in our neighbourhoods, since some of them are not churchgoers. How many of us know our neighbours or know their children?

Now, I understand the possible sensitivities that can be involved in reaching out to others in today’s society. Personally, I always cringe a little whenever my neighbours’ young children rush up to hug me. I do my best to be accommodating, but I am aware our relationships are not sufficiently developed to encompass hugs. Still, parents have never complained or objected, and at this juncture I try to just be a good neighbour – and they do likewise.

At any rate, relationships are key to our existence. I believe it is only through building good relationships – whatever that looks like in specific situations – that we can serve those around us. So, in the third instance, we could invite young people and their parents around for a cup of tea, a snack or dinner, depending on our circumstances, as a way of building whole-family relationships.

You may be surprised to see how appreciative young people are when someone reaches out to them.

Joy Roxborough is a creative industry professional, writer and entrepreneur.


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