The NHS, local authorities and others should offer long-term funding to projects designed to support marginalised young people’s mental health and prevent them from entering or returning to the criminal justice system, says a report published today by Centre for Mental Health.

Unlocking a different future is an evaluation of the ground-breaking Project Future, a partnership between Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health Trust, the London Borough of Haringey and charity MAC-UK, and funded by the Big Lottery Fund.

Centre for Mental Health has for three years evaluated Project Future’s work with young marginalised men with experience in the criminal justice system, often labelled ‘gang-affiliated’ and who have had poor access to services. 

Project Future was coproduced alongside young men in the community, underpinned by the ethos that they are experts in their own lives and are best placed to know what would support their community. The project is staffed by a team of Clinical Psychologists, specialist Youth Workers and local young people to create a supportive and nurturing environment for young people and to address their mental health, wellbeing and occupational needs. It worked with 198 young people during the three years it was evaluated.

Project Future made young people feel safe, respected... supported and listened to. This enabled young people to see themselves in different ways, access new opportunities, and envision... a “future self”.

The report finds that Project Future made young people feel safe, respected, accepted, given opportunities, empowered, supported and listened to. This enabled young people to see themselves in different ways, access new opportunities, and envision and work towards a “future self”. And it was thought by the young people to enhance their mental and physical wellbeing, access to education, employment, training and services, and to reduce offending.

The Centre employed young people to act as peer researchers alongside the Centre’s researcher. This ensured that young people’s voices were truly heard, ensuring the research process is engaging and respectful, and the findings reflective of their experiences.

The report finds that the young people involved in Project Future saw a significant improvement in their mental health and wellbeing during their time in contact with the project. Many got help from the project with health, employment, training, welfare and justice. The report also finds that the young people with the longest involvement got the greatest benefits from it.

The Centre employed young people to act as peer researchers alongside the Centre’s researcher. This ensured that young people’s voices were truly heard, ensuring the research process is engaging and respectful, and the findings reflective of their experiences.

The report concludes that Project Future provides a model for a very different kind of mental health and wellbeing service for young people growing up in the most marginalised communities. And to make the biggest impact such projects need long-term funding.

The report recommends that mental health service providers and commissioners should develop services for young people using the key principles of Project Future. Every NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnership should include at least one project built on Project Future’s principles to reach its most marginalised communities. Local authorities, NHS commissioning bodies, Police and Crime Commissioners and others should pool budgets to offer long-term funding to projects designed to engage and support marginalised young people.

Schools need to be ‘psychologically informed’, with staff who are trained in understanding and addressing trauma, stress and distress, and with ready access to mental health practitioners to provide help to children facing complex challenges. And the Department for Education should embed ‘life lessons’ into the PSHE curriculum and consult with young people to find alternatives to school exclusions.

Police forces need resources to invest in recruiting, training and supporting officers to understand and address the complexities in young people’s lives. Prisons need a profound culture shift to prioritise wellbeing and rehabilitation in order to stop the cycle of offending. And probation services need the resources to build relationships with young people and provide more joined-up support to reduce their risk of reoffending.

Report author Jessica Stubbs said: “A fundamental societal shift is required in in our current approach to tackling offending and improving mental health and wellbeing if we wish to see sustainable change. We need to recognise and address the material, racial and health inequalities that young people experience. It is no surprise that poor mental health and wellbeing, violence and unemployment are highest in our most marginalised communities and we need to be prepared to address these inequalities at multiple levels.”

It is no surprise that poor mental health and wellbeing, violence and unemployment are highest in our most marginalised communities and we need to be prepared to address these inequalities at multiple levels.

Sarah Hughes, Chief Executive at Centre for Mental Health, said: “Project Future has demonstrated that working alongside young people to support their wellbeing and opportunities can make a dramatic difference to their life chances and the communities around them.”

“We are recommending local authorities, voluntary and community organisations and the NHS come together in their local areas to work in partnership with and improve the lives of young the people they serve in their most disadvantaged areas and communities. Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships are ideally placed to deliver this across the country and should prioritise a group of people who for too long have been on the margins.”

Dr Fatima Bibi, Project Lead and Clinical Psychologist, said: “Project Future is an excellent example of how strengths focused, evidence based psychological approaches can be adapted and applied to transform service design and delivery for young people and communities that services often do not reach”.


Read the report here