Imogen Edge and James Kenrick report on data indicating an alarming increase in young people seeking help for housing, employment and benefits problems, and question whether advice services are prepared to respond.
There is mounting evidence – and concern – about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people’s mental health. Far less attention has been paid to this age group’s social welfare needs, which have been identified as key determinants of young people’s mental health, primarily affecting marginalised young adults.
Our analysis of data from local Citizens Advice services reveals worrying signs that young people are already struggling with increased levels of social welfare problems. In the first 6 months following the initial lockdown (April 2020 to September 2020), local Citizens Advice services in England and Wales reported a 15% increase in the number of young clients aged 16-24 (from 6,338 to 7,326 per month on average, representing a rise from 5.7% to 7.7% of all clients). In London, which has been particularly impacted by the pandemic, there was a 40% rise in young clients. What is particularly worrying about these figures is that they came at a time when Citizens Advice’s services became harder to access, with face to face local services being replaced primarily by telephone advice. Across all ages, this led to a 15% reduction in the number of clients nationally and a 9% reduction in London.
We believe it to be highly unlikely that the increase in presentations from young people is a result of the channel shift in Citizens Advice’s services enforced by social distancing. Citizens Advice already provided access to advice by telephone, with young people typically less likely to make use of telephone advice services than older age groups. There are good reasons for believing the rise in demand reflects an increase in young people’s needs.
Our analysis of the types of advice problems with which young people have been presenting indicates that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on young people in the areas of employment and housing in particular. Nationally, Citizens Advice has seen a 33% increase in young clients with housing problems and a 50% increase in young clients with employment problems since April 2020. In East London, which has been severely hit by Covid-19, these figures are far higher. For example, we have seen a 140% increase in young clients with housing problems in Redbridge and a 200% increase in young clients with employment problems in Barking and Dagenham. The numbers of young people presenting with problems concerning Universal Credit and discrimination have also risen.
Service data such as this from advice agencies has often proved a reliable early indicator of emerging need. And there is corroborating evidence in this case. We know that young people account for around half the fall in employment that has occurred as a result of the pandemic. Further, 78% of councils have seen increases in youth homelessness. In both these cases, the impact has been far greater for young people who were already experiencing inequalities. Similarly, large increases in young Universal Credit claimants have been confirmed by official statistics, whilst researchers at UCL have reported that 40% of 18 to 30 year olds in the UK experienced some form of discrimination in the first few months of the pandemic.
We are concerned that the rise in young people seeking help from Citizens Advice may be just the initial indicators of a wider and longer-term surge in need for social welfare advice among marginalised young people. In previous economic downturns, rises in youth unemployment and in housing and benefit problems have tended to be compounded over time by increases in debt, homelessness and mental ill-health.
Advice services that can address young people’s social welfare problems holistically are known to be a cost-effective mental health intervention. Yet, substantial work is required to address long-standing barriers to access to advice services for young people. Our analysis indicates that only 3% of 16-24 year olds with an advice problem accessed a local Citizens Advice service last year, with that figure as low as 1% in London. Most young people end up tackling their social welfare problems alone because they feel powerless to combat systems they don’t understand; they often lack awareness of their rights; and they don’t expect services to take them seriously.
To address this, two local advice services in East London have come together to place young people at the forefront of developing a service model that is relevant for this age group. Through their ‘Youth Innovation Project’, Citizens Advice Redbridge and Citizens Advice Barking & Dagenham are employing young people in roles where they can lead the development of a more young person-friendly advice service. A range of methods aimed at improving young people’s engagement with Citizens Advice and the quality of service they receive will be tested through the project.
Based on analysis of service experience data and the expert advice of young people involved in the project, initial service improvements will focus on demonstrating that young people can trust advice services to be on their side. As Sadiyah,* an ex-client of Citizens Advice who is a member of the project’s Youth Forum in Redbridge, confirms, seeking advice for the first time can be a major step for a young person: “I feel like the pandemic has made things so much worse…When I had my problems they just got in there and helped me out with it … but it’s needing to know that you have that access and knowing that they can help you… I think it’s very rare for young people to come to Citizens Advice by themselves; it takes a lot of courage.”
The longer-term goal of the project is to develop a local advice system that is able to respond comprehensively to young people’s complex and growing social welfare needs. The learning from the Youth Innovation Project will be shared across the Citizens Advice network and more widely to inform service improvements.
Indeed, this is not work that can be left to one corner of London. Wherever they live, young people will need better access to high quality advice on social welfare issues if they are to avoid the unequal social and mental health impacts of the pandemic and rebuild their fractured hopes for the future.
Imogen Edge is a young person leading Citizens Advice Redbridge’s work to improve young people’s access to advice. James Kenrick is a consultant specialising in young people’s social welfare advice and mental health needs. For further information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
* Name has been changed to respect confidentiality