Health and first aid charity St John Ambulance is increasingly focused on caring for people’s mental health – notably through its work with young people, including the recently-launched Young Responders programme.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted societal inequalities and has made many pre-existing mental health problems in young people more pronounced. According to data from an NHS Digital 2020 report, one in six young people is living with a mental health problem, compared to one in nine in 2017.

In light of the recent World Mental Health Awareness Day which put a spotlight on mental health in an unequal world, Dr Lynn Thomas, medical director at St John Ambulance, offers advice on how we can all play a part in helping and supporting young people with their emotional wellbeing.

Mental health first aid is of equal importance to physical first aid

Call it mental health, emotional health, or general wellbeing, one of the most important things to note is that whilst there are common symptoms, every individual is unique. There remains a stigma around the issue, but mental health problems in young people can develop from many places, including worries about school, social pressures, an unsupportive home life, coming from a low-income household, social media, physical changes or even lack of sleep.

St John Ambulance recognises mental health first aid as being of equal importance to physical first aid. That is why it forms a key part of our Young Responders programme, which is focussed on helping young people from seldom-heard communities to reach their full potential by learning life-changing and sometimes life-saving skills.

Supporting a young person’s mental health is pivotal to their emotional development, helping them to provide a stable base to develop – in time – into a successful young adult. Those whose mental health goes unsupported run a higher risk of developing a mental illness in later life. The Chief Medical Officer’s Report 2014 suggests that 75 percent of mental illness (excluding dementia) starts before the age of 18.

As adults, it is often easy for us to forget just what life was like as a young person; even more so to compare the issues that affect them to our own and trivialise them. The key to being supportive is to step back and remember. We have to put ourselves in their shoes, appreciate that the world is ever-changing and so are the pressures that young people are encountering.

The kinds of help young people require will differ, depending on their circumstances, but there are three key principles to offering support:


Young people have their own priorities and, whilst these remain fundamentally the same across generations, social media, peer pressure and conformity play a much bigger part for young people in today’s society. It’s important to remember that whilst some issues do not concern other societal groups, they are of huge importance to the young.

It’s important to remember that if someone needs advice, that is not an invitation for critique; but a request to support decisions:

  • Listen and be sympathetic.
  • Let them open up as much or as little as they want to, it may be a long process, but it must be in their time.
  • Ask open ended questions to allow the space that is required for answers.


Every adult has different life experiences, skills and understanding of how things work. Young people may have less worldly knowledge, but this does not negate the way they feel. Trivialising issues as ‘something to get used to’ or ‘part of growing up’ can be detrimental to well-being and can even cause anxiety or depression.

Every day is a school day for all of us, and as young people continue to evolve and learn and grow, they need to feel supported. Allowing experience to happen and providing gentle encouragement is going to promote a much more positive outcome from conversations:

  • Set some time aside with no distractions; it’s important to provide an open and non-judgmental space.
  • Listen carefully and be open.
  • You don’t have to agree; you just have to understand and let them know that you respect their feelings.

Seek help

Any person who is experiencing mental illness, at any age, will have a unique lived experience. When offering support, it is crucial to remember that you might not have all the required skills. Parents, guardians, teachers and youth leaders are rarely trained counsellors, psychiatrists, psychologists or doctors.

When a young person requires support with their mental health, it’s important to remember that part of our responsibility is not to try and be something we aren’t. We should aim to act as a guide to more appropriate and effective solutions, in exactly the same way as you would recommend a visit to the dentist instead of attempting to extract a tooth yourself.

Professional support for young people is available through the NHS with CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). There are also numerous national and local charities available to support the mental health of young people. But what can you do?

  • Offer wellbeing advice, such as practising self-care (healthy diet, good night’s sleep etc).
  • Don’t try and diagnose or second-guess; making assumptions is often going to be wrong.
  • Do not take control; allow young people to make their own decisions unless they are a danger to themselves or others.
  • Know your limits and make sure any truly harmful situation is dealt by seeking appropriate help.

Bespoke programme empowering marginalised young people to meet their full potential

St John Ambulance’s Young Responders programme was launched this year and works in partnership with young people to create bespoke mental health and physical first aid programmes to address specific needs within their individual communities. With funding from players of People’s Postcode Lottery, the initiative helps young people build strategies for coping with poor mental health and identify and deal with life-threatening physical first aid emergencies. Young Responders aims to improve sustained employability, social action and personal resilience, as well as building confidence and empowering marginalised young people to reach their full potential.