Power of being active! Charity helping tackle child mental health crisis

Children’s charity the Youth Sport Trust has said thousands of young people experiencing, or at risk of developing serious mental health issues are using the power of PE to combat feelings of stress, loneliness and isolation. 

It comes on Place 2 Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week and sees the charity share the story of Ruby who said PE and sport has changed her life.   

More than a million children needed treatment for serious mental health problems in the past year, NHS figures show, with referrals for mental health treatment for under-18s increasing by almost two-fifths (39%) to more than a million (1,169,515) in 2021-22.   

12-year-old Ruby James from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales is one of the 21,216 young people to benefit from the strategies taught on the Youth Sport Trust’s Active in Mind programme in England and Wales since the programme began. When Ruby’s teacher at Pen Y Dre High School, Megan Caple, spotted Ruby was shy, lacking confidence and finding it hard to adjust to life at secondary school, she immediately signed Ruby up to the charity’s Active in Mind programme where she worked with the charity’s athlete mentors.    

Ruby’s great grandmother and then her dad died just before she started secondary school. She felt the stress of starting a new school difficult and was withdrawn from school life. The grief impacted her mental health.   

“I was really close to my Dad and Great Gran,” Ruby said.

It has been a real struggle losing them and my mental health has been impacted, but it is getting slowly better. 

Ruby James
Ruby James

"With my Dad, we would always be out and about visiting parks, going on adventure trips and walking in the local area. The morning he died came as a real shock and I miss him lots. 

“The support of my school through the Active in Mind programme has had a real impact. It made things better because it made me laugh a lot more and helped me to be more active.” 

Ruby says it is a good thing the strategies she learnt to help boost her mood and confidence in everyday life are being shared on Children’s Mental Health Week to help more young people.  

“I think Active in Mind is one of the best things you can do and will help other young people like me. I think all schools should have access to it. The thing I enjoyed the most was being active through the games and understanding how to keep my body and mind healthy.  

“I don’t think there is enough support for young people in society today when it comes to mental health, and I think our generation can be easily overlooked. Children are struggling and it is mostly young people my age who are at high school. It is a big concern. Young people should never be afraid to share their emotions and how they are feeling. I know a lot of young people out there will want help but may be too afraid to ask for it. I want to say to them there are always people willing to listen and who want to help you. Please ask.” 

Ruby James

The Youth Sport Trust’s data shows that 68% of young people who took part in Active in Mind in England and Wales in the last academic year reported that it had helped them to cope better with their mental health, and 65% had told the charity how it helped them to feel more positive.   

Adele James, Ruby’s Mum, said she has seen a huge transformation in her daughter since starting on the programme: “I have seen a big difference in her. She has come on so much. It’s been the most horrific four years for our family – we’ve lost so much, and Ruby became really withdrawn. I think before, I didn’t realise how much she was bottling up.  

“Active in Mind has been fantastic, Ruby now interacts with staff and pupils, and is much more confident and bubbly. If there’s one thing anyone else can take from hearing about our story, it is to know that in those difficult days when the tunnel seems very long and dark, there is hope and a light at the end. You don’t get over it, but help is out there, and Active in Mind has been that for us. It’s not just helped Ruby, it has shown me that if Ruby can do it, then I can too.”  

Active in Mind was launched in secondary schools across England in 2016 and has since expanded to Wales. It is currently delivered in 50 schools across the UK and is funded through Sport England and Sport Wales. The programme offers support to young people experiencing mental wellbeing issues to use physical activity, positive lifestyle habits and psycho-social strategies to improve their mindset. The Youth Sport Trust also uses former sports stars to help deliver the programme in schools.  

The charity is now sharing some of the free lifestyle tools and stress-busting techniques so that more young people like Ruby can be supported.   

Ali Oliver MBE, Chief Executive of the Youth Sport Trust, said:  

“In the shadow of the pandemic, we are taking urgent action to help the many young people who are struggling with their mental health, and to support schools with practical advice and help. A cost-of-living emergency is increasing inequality across society and these worries are having an impact on young people too. Our Active in Mind programme and materials have been proven to support young people to cope better with life today and develop strategies to help them tomorrow. 

“Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week is an important moment to further highlight children’s mental health is in crisis. PE, sport and play are brilliant tools to help young people to connect and feel a sense of belonging but society’s awareness of the role they can play to boost mental wellbeing is not widely known. We are excited to shine a light on this further at our upcoming Conference for school wellbeing leads and teachers in March.”    

Support on offer to tackle the mental health crisis:  

In the lead up to its Conference, the charity is encouraging families, teachers and school wellbeing leads to act on this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week theme and ‘connect’ to support children’s wellbeing. It says they can do this in a number of ways: 

For families 

If you're a parent who's interested in doing more to support your child's mental health, please encourage your child’s school to find out more about the Youth Sport Trust’s Active in Mind programme. You can also download a handy poster to help encourage healthy behaviours here.

For schools 

Secondary school teachers in England can sign up to receive free Active in Mind training being delivered in March and the summer term by visiting this link. There are 150 free places available on the virtual CPD sessions and 50 free places available for the six-week course which is delivered in schools with an Athlete Mentor.  

All schools are also invited to attend the upcoming Youth Sport Trust Conference on 2 March where they can hear best practice and look at how the power of PE, sport and play can be used innovatively to improve young people’s mental health. Dr Alex George, former A&E now TV doctor and Youth Mental Health Ambassador, 10 Downing Street, and author of ‘A Better Day’, the positive mental health handbook for children will be a key speaker at the event. Tickets are available here.  

Schools can also sign up for free to join the Well Schools Movement. This is a growing community of like-minded professionals and stakeholders committed to creating the happiest and healthiest learners in the world. 

Published on 6 February 2023