“We are learning how to go digital!” How the youth advice and counselling sector is adapting in response to coronavirus

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The outbreak of novel coronavirus (Covid-19) and measures to contain it are affecting every aspect of life for people all over the world. As infection has spread exponentially in the UK, the government has gradually implemented a set of measures culminating in a nationwide lockdown announced on 23 March, which only allows people to leave their homes for a handful of reasons.

This has had a huge effect on the youth advice and counselling sector, including on the community-based Youth Information, Advice and Counselling Services (YIACS) that form the membership of the Youth Access network. With schools, libraries and community centres closing their doors, and most services forced to close their physical locations and work remotely, YIACS across the country are having to urgently adapt to continue supporting vulnerable young people during this unprecedented crisis.

To better understand how YIACS are being affected by the crisis, Youth Access surveyed members on their concerns and plans for mitigating the impact of the virus and associated social distancing measures. We received 25 responses to the survey, while numerous others reached out to us separately to let us know about their response to the situation. Their responses show a variety of challenges and different approaches to responding to them.

Closure of face-to-face services and pivot to remote service delivery

By far the most pressing concern for YIACS is the need to continue supporting young people as face-to-face services cease operating. As well as services closing due to social distancing measures implemented at YIACS premises, many services operate in schools and youth clubs that have been closed to curb infections. This presents a number of challenges, both in continuing to provide effective interventions to meet young people’s mental health and wellbeing needs, and in reaching young people who require support.

In response, organisations have ramped up their capacity for remote counselling and support. This includes conducting what would have been face-to-face appointments by phone, e-mail and other digital channels. There are differing levels of preparedness across the sector: while some organisations already offer digital counselling services and are scaling up these operations to meet new demand, others are investing in digital solutions for the first time – while for some the barriers to introducing remote services are currently too high.

Telephone services are generally considered to have fewer barriers than digital, but there are still factors that prevent YIACS from replacing face-to-face sessions with telephone ones. These include a lack of staff trained in remote counselling, as well as particular difficulties in supporting certain groups of young people, such as those with limited use of English, who have difficulties with language in general or have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Meanwhile, some services that operate through schools report concerns that they will not be able to reach the young people they work with at all, since the schools have sole access to their personal data.

In addition, we are aware that counselling services delivered by sole practitioners (outside our network) have often ceased suddenly, with little guidance from schools and no organisational infrastructure to enable safe continuation of support through remote delivery methods.

Safeguarding vulnerable young people

Remote counselling also presents a different set of safeguarding issues to face-to-face support. One key concern raised by a number of services is that many young people will lack a safe space at home to make calls, while service-providers won’t necessarily know who else is in the room with the young person while they are on the phone, potentially jeopardising confidentiality. Providing services via videolink presents other safeguarding challenges, such as the risk that this could give support workers a view into young people’s bedrooms, where they are most likely to be during the session.

YIACS also report broader safeguarding concerns arising from vulnerable young people no longer having access to “protective factors” such as school, youth clubs, counselling and activity groups. As well as increasing distress and anxiety, some are concerned that this could put young people at increased risk of exploitation and abuse.

In response, organisations are adapting quickly by implementing new safeguarding policies and guidance for frontline workers, as well as safeguarding vulnerable children by making lists of those children who will need specific attention and support during the lockdown.

Emergent mental health issues due to the crisis

As well as the difficulty in assisting young people with pre-existing mental health conditions, there is widespread concern that young people could develop new issues or exacerbate existing ones due to anxiety about the virus, as well as the impact of social distancing and self-isolation. A number of YIACS report being worried that this will lead to a greater demand for support at a time when they are least able to provide it.

As well as the efforts mentioned above to extend remote counselling provision during the crisis, some services told us about specific programmes of speaking to and informing young people about the virus, as well as committing to outreach work and relocating services from schools to more accessible locations in the community.

Keeping young people engaged

It is a much-repeated fact in the youth sector that maintaining contact with young people and keeping them engaged with services can be challenging at the best of times – and with the closure of face-to-face services and changes to young people’s living circumstances due to the current situation, many services predict that keeping up levels of engagement among the young people they work with will be a struggle.

By far the most popular response to this challenge appears to be increased use of websites and social media to engage with young people, as well as staff and other stakeholders. As one enthusiastic respondent put it: “We are learning how to go digital!” As well as providing information and service updates, services are producing lighter content to keep young people engaged. This includes using social media videos to provide activities for young people in isolation including live-streamed yoga sessions and resilience labs. As another respondent told us: “We have some real digital enthusiasts who are looking at lots of ways that we can use these means to engage and reach young people.”

Staffing levels and home working

Increasing numbers of employees taking to homeworking has been a hallmark of the coronavirus lockdown around the world, and the youth advice and counselling sector is no different. Many of the organisations surveyed responded that employees were adjusting to work from home, and being provided with the equipment and guidance necessary.

There is, however, widespread concern that staffing levels could be impacted if workers become ill or are forced to self-isolate because of the virus, impacting on the already limited capacity of services to continue operating during the lockdown.

Funding concerns

A final but nonetheless significant concern shared by a number of YIACS is the impact of the crisis on funding. There are a number of contributing factors, including the need to cancel planned community fundraising events, the inability to meet contractual targets and the fear of “clawback” from funders when regular services are forced to cease operating, and longer term concerns around how reduced interest rates and investment yields will result in smaller funding pots among charitable trusts and foundations.

It is clear that government support, combined with a flexible approach from trusts and foundations, will be essential to prevent many services facing severe financial shortfalls as a result of the current situation.