By Michelle Devane, PA
Youth support workers are “stretched to the limit” and “completely burned out” due to the increased demand for services during the pandemic, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Rachael Treanor of the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) described the sector as “grossly understaffed”.
The National Youth Health Programme manager told the mental health committee that additional funding is “crucial” to combat the issues that will face young people after Covid-19.
The committee met on Thursday to discuss youth mental health and the challenges arising out of the pandemic.
Ms Treanor told TDs and senators that youth workers feel they have been fulfilling roles outside their remit since the pandemic began.
She said many youth workers are engaging in family support work such as delivering food parcels, and that since services had moved online, and young people were engaging with youth workers through phone calls and messages, there was an expectation from young people that youth workers would be constantly available to them.
“They are completely burned out because young people are interacting with them constantly because they are so easily accessible now,” she said.
“Young people expect an instant message reply or, if they are maybe coming across some difficulty, they’re trying to contact a young worker and these workers are feeling ‘I need to reply’ at all times.
“They are stretched beyond their limits.”
She said Government funding for the sector had increased in recent years and now stood at €66.8 million but this remained €6 million or eight per cent below the funding it received 12 years ago.
“Additional investment in youth work is crucial in supporting the sector to meet the needs of the growing number of young people, particularly the most vulnerable,” Ms Treanor said.
“This is even more important now as we emerge from Covid-19.
“The need was there prior to Covid-19, but is now greater as many young people have been significantly impacted by the pandemic.”
Spunout.ie chief executive Ian Power told the committee 50,000 young people had used its free crisis text support services since last June.
Mr Power said the 50808 text service, launched by the not-for-profit organisation for people aged 16 to 34, had given an insight into the “enormous strain” on young people’s mental health during the pandemic
He said between June and December it had 33,000 conversations with people on everything from anxiety and depression to self-harm and suicide.
“About one in every five texters told the service they had thoughts of suicide,” he said.
“Last year the organisation engaged the National Ambulance on behalf of over 400 people in a place of real and active danger.”
Since the start of this year a further 15,000 people had contacted the service.
Mr Power said it is the second time in a decade that young people had been “transformatively impacted” by global circumstances far outside their control.
“Many of today’s young people were children when their parents lost their jobs in the great financial crisis,” he said.
“Today, they are facing into their own difficulties of a youth unemployment rate that far outstrips the very worst days of the early 2010s.
“Insecurity building on insecurity passing between generations as crisis succeeds crisis is a surefire recipe for mental health disaster.
“We must invest in the mental health supports young people are going to need. But we must also take care of the basics of housing security for our younger citizens, of access to good, quality jobs on which a life can be built, and of freedom from discrimination based on ethnicity, sexuality or gender identity.”
He added that a whole-of-government approach was needed to address the issues.