A survey of 500 vulnerable families supported by volunteers from charity, Safe Families for Children, has evidenced significant mental health benefits from community support.
Struggling families seen to maintain or increase in confidence (93%) and wellbeing (91%) after volunteer support from the community had taken place.
Families facing challenges such as: isolation, mental or physical health difficulties, difficulty coping, or other issues are referred to the charity by the local authority. The charity sets goals with the families, whether that’s to make friends in the community, to spend quality time with their children, or to DIY their house to make it a safe place for the children. Volunteers work with the families to achieve these goals for up to six months or until support is no longer needed.
The main reason for family referral to Safe Families for Children was limited coping skills (20%), followed by mental health difficulties (15%).
In 2017 an independent review, Thriving at Work, found that poor mental health in the UK workforce cost the economy up to £99bn per year. Parental mental health is also a significant factor for children entering the care system (Department of Health).
When a parent’s own mental health is suffering they can struggle to care for their children and this can adversely affect the child’s development. In 2010, 2 million children were estimated to live in households where at least 1 parent has a mental illness.
Safe Families focus on tracking progress across 6 outcome domains and families supported by Safe Families for Children’s community volunteers were seen to maintain or increase in social networks (94%), confidence (93%), wellbeing (91%), positive parenting (90%), family relationships (89%) and physical needs (88%).
The charity’s evaluation took place across 33 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales and involved 500 parents/carers.
The importance of community support has been previously highlighted in a 2014 study which found that people in neighbourhoods with greater levels of social cohesion experienced lower rates of mental health problems than those in neighbourhoods with lower cohesion.
Keith Danby, Chief Executive of Safe Families for Children, said: “Volunteer support gives struggling parents the space they need to deal with whatever issues they are facing. Isolation and lack of support during a crisis can really negatively impact a person’s mental wellbeing. When families are referred to us they are often spiralling deeper into crisis and the support stops that spiral and enables them to get back on their feet. It’s a community-based solution to a community-based problem.”
“I was suicidal.”
Mum of one, Deborah* describes herself as having extremely low mood when she referred herself and her son to social services. As a disabled single mum she felt alone and overwhelmed and unable to take her little Matt out and about as she would like.
“I don’t have any support network. I don’t have a family member that I can turn to…and then I met [Safe Families volunteers] Carol and Graham.”
As volunteers, Carol and Graham Roberts allowed Deborah to take things at her own pace and learn to trust them bit by bit. Slowly, slowly, says Deborah she let them into her life.
Carol found being non-judgmental and encouraging were key to building their bond.
“We got to know them really well and actually Deborah is now a friend of mine” said Carol. “It’s lovely when we catch up and we took her little boy Matt away in the caravan for a weekend, which he thoroughly enjoyed, just to give her a break and some ‘her time’. She has grown in her confidence massively since Safe Families were involved.”
“They were literally on hand to help with anything that I had on my mind,” said Deborah. “Whether it was to deal with paperwork or advice regarding Matt because of his conditions.
“A lot of time of time when you’re going through struggles you don’t realise what’s going on in your own head.”
Matt has also grown attached to the volunteers; Deborah says he looks up to them as if they were his grandparents. Even though Safe Families support has officially ended, they’re keeping in touch. “Even now a year on we’re still talking. We’re friends now…We can phone each other up or text and ask her anything that’s on my mind.”
*Names changed to protect vulnerable families