Voluntary and community sector counselling services play a critical role in helping young people who have fallen through a gap in mental health services provision, new research suggests.

Young people seen by trained counsellors in services run by charities and community organisations expressed very high levels of satisfaction with their care and showed significant improvements, according to the research conducted by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), University of Roehampton and advice and counselling network Youth Access.

Their study comes several weeks after the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield voiced concern that only a small fraction of children who need mental health support were able to access NHS children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).

Why is this research important?

One in eight children in England is living with a mental health problem, according to figures released by NHS Digital last month.

With trends showing girls and young adults at greater risk of experiencing mental health issues, the present study suggests that voluntary sector (VCS) providers will play an increasingly vital role in ensuring mental health support reaches young people who are most in need and often underserved in statutory or school-based services.

The study found a higher proportion of young women using the voluntary sector services compared to NHS and school-based services, as well as serving an older client group of young adults.

Researchers believe this study shows the services may bridge a crucial gap in provision for young adults who are often at risk of falling through gaps in the move from child to adult NHS services or as they leave school and go on to work or university.

In addition, the services were widely accessed by marginalised young people, such as those from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups.

The research published today in Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice is the first of its kind to shed light on an area of counselling that has typically been overlooked.

Who took part in the research?

More than 2,100 young people aged between 11 and 25 years old were surveyed for the research to gauge the level of accessibility and satisfaction with counselling from nine VCS services in England* that operate Youth Access’s model of Youth Information, Advice and Counselling Services (YIACS); a holistic approach to young people’s health and wellbeing concerns which aims to address a wide range of social, legal, practical, emotional and mental health needs in a coordinated way.

In general, young people accessing these services experienced significant short-term reductions in psychological distress, at levels comparable with statutory and school-based services.

The researchers compared their findings to previous studies looking at the effectiveness of both school-based counselling and statutory services such as CAMHS.

What does BACP say?

The paper’s lead author, BACP senior research fellow, Charlie Duncan said:

“With over-stretched NHS services, long waiting lists, increase in demand and schools struggling to support young people with mental health problems, it’s crucial the role of voluntary sector counselling services are not overlooked.

“These voluntary sector services provide a vital opportunity to support some of our most vulnerable young people who may feel there is no one out there to help them or listen to their problems.

“Our research gives us the evidence that VCS counselling services are associated with positive changes in young people’s lives, are accessible to those from a variety of backgrounds and also that young people are happy with their care and treatment.”


In general, young people accessing VCS services experienced significant short-term reductions in psychological distress

In general, young people accessing VCS services experienced significant short-term reductions in psychological distress

What does Youth Access say?

James Kenrick, CEO of Youth Access, said:

“The voluntary sector isn’t just picking up low-level cases and overflow from CAMHS. In the face of increasing demand, person-centred youth counselling services - on the high streets where young people live - are a cornerstone of a system that works for everyone. 

“Without investing in the largely untapped potential of the voluntary sector to serve the most marginalised young people, the Government will fail to achieve its ambition to ‘transform’ young people’s mental health services – and, ultimately, will fail young people once more.”

A young person's view

Natalie Spence, a young person who received counselling at her local Youth Information Advice and Counselling Service (YIACS), said:

“After struggling to get counselling through CAMHS, my therapist basically disappeared after a couple of really difficult sessions. By the time they found someone else I was too old for CAMHS and adult services wouldn’t take me till I was 18.

“Luckily I was also in touch with a local youth advice and counselling service at Berwick Youth Project - who have been amazing. I’m 23 now and for 10 years they’ve been my lifeline. From helping me deal with the death of my Dad to making sure I had a laptop to start Uni, they consistently go above and beyond for me. After my own experiences, I couldn’t imagine building that sort of trust anywhere else.”

Natalie Spence

Natalie Spence

Work done by VCS organisations should be key focus

The University of Roehampton's Professor Mick Cooper, who is also a BACP member, said:

“As the government decides how to spend money to support young people across the country, the work being done by VCS organisations should be a key focus. The need for mental health treatments among young people and young adults seems to be increasing, and we need to ensure that all members of our community have access to these much-needed services.

“Our study not only shows how satisfied clients are with counselling within the voluntary and community sector, but also how the accessibility that VCS counselling can provide may be a critically important factor in supporting young people’s mental health needs.

Read the full research paper here.

Additional information

*A total of 2,144 young people were recruited from nine VCS Youth Information, Advice and Counselling Services (YIACS) in nine areas of London, Yorkshire, the north west and south west of England between June 2014 and June 2016. Data on gender, age, ethnicity, number of sessions, problem descriptions and initial levels of psychological distress as well as levels of service satisfaction were collected over an average period of 16.7 weeks.