Young people are at risk of poorer mental health as Bolton Lads and Girls Club fights to save its ‘vital’ youth counselling service.

The youth centre, which was founded in 1889, is facing having to shut its counselling service at the end of March as two years of funding for the service comes to an end – despite demand being so high the charity could ‘quadruple’ the service and still not meet it.

Now, the charity, which is already supported by more than 160 organisations, is hoping to get more businesses and individuals on board to raise more than £60,000 to save the service, which has been described by bosses as a ‘lifeline’.

Donations can be made on the charity’s JustGiving page.

The news comes after a report published by the Local Government Association last year described a nationwide ‘postcode lottery’ for access to such mental health support.

The Bolton News: Young people at the clubYoung people at the club (Image: Bolton Lads and Girls Club)

Speaking to The Bolton News, chief executive Emma Hutchinson and deputy chief executive Sarah Randall spoke about the impact of the service on young people.

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Emma said: “Even before Covid, there was a significant increase in the demand for young people who needed mental health service support of varying levels.

“Covid, almost, was a catalyst – that need, that demand – it exacerbated the problem, because of the social isolation that a lot of young people felt during that period.

“It was further worsened by the anxiety young people had when the cost-of-living crisis hit.”

Sarah added: “One in five young people struggle with their mental health. We see that right across all our services – our counselling service has never been more needed.

“Demand hasn’t gone away – the need continues to grow. We probably need a bigger service.

“There is so little free support out there for children and young people across Bolton, and if they don’t get the services when they need them you end up with young people having more serious mental health concerns and pressure on other services because they didn’t get support at the right time.”

The Bolton News: Bolton Lads and Girls ClubBolton Lads and Girls Club (Image: Bolton Lads and Girls Club)

“Stopping these services is just gobsmacking”

The counselling service, which sees around 60 new young people each year, receives referrals from GPs, schools, social workers, and the charity’s youth club.

A counsellor works with the young person for around three months in regular sessions at the charity’s Infinity building, on Spa Road, in one-to-one rooms which are designed to be non-clinical, comfortable, and calming.

The charity also visits young people at their schools or colleges.

The Bolton News: Rooms used for counsellingRooms used for counselling (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Sarah said the service helps prevent knock-on impacts on young people’s education, as well as the NHS and criminal justice system later in life, by intervening when problems emerge.

She continued: “We make such an impact, but we do need the money – stopping these services is just gobsmacking really, at a time when they’ve never been more needed.”

She continued: “Depending on what the issue is, we see young people who have gone through adverse childhood experiences, bullying, the impact of cost of living, young carers who look after their parents – which has an impact on their health and wellbeing, young people who have been involved with some sort of traumatic event.

“Those things aren’t quick fixes. You have to provide the environment for the young person to feel comfortable to talk about the thing that’s stressing them and work through with the counsellor.

“It’s not in-and-out, it’s working with a young person at their pace, so they feel supported and comfortable to talk about difficult topics, and things that are impacting their mental health.”

“They think they’re not worthy”

Current waiting times for the counselling service are around two to three months.

According to figures released by the NHS in 2022, the average wait time between referral and second contact for children's mental health services was 60 days in Bolton, with 10 per cent of children waiting more than 12 weeks, and 31 per cent having their referral closed before treatment.

Nationwide, the average wait times were 40 days – with just five per cent waiting more than 12 weeks, and 32 per cent having their referral closed before treatment.

Sarah said long waiting lists can lead to children’s mental health deteriorating as they believe they are not worthy of help.

She said: “We see lots of people who self-harm, who have suicidal thoughts. If you don’t provide the right support to children and young people at the right time, then their mental health will deteriorate.

“It can be very serious – that’s what we see later on down the line, if those services aren’t put in place, it can be quite devastating for young people.

“They feel like they’re not worthy of somebody investing in their time and support in them.

Emma added: “The longer it takes for them to get that support, the bigger that ripple effect is.”

The Bolton News:

“There’s just nothing left”

Despite being in her role less than a year, having become CEO in June, Emma knows Bolton Lads and Girls Club particularly well.

A member of the club, which is one of the largest of its kind in the UK, when she was younger, Emma has worked with children and young people for 22 years..

The 44-year-old, who was born in Breightmet, said: “There are so many children and young people and their families in Bolton that need help and support that we, fortunately, are in a position to give.

“I used the services of the club myself when I was a young person, so I know first-hand the difference it can make.”

However, since 2010, Emma says government-led austerity measures and funding cuts have meant reduced services were inevitable.

The club, which used to open its doors for free seven days a week, has not opened on Sundays since 2020. Saturdays were the next victim of cost-cutting measures in April 2023.

Then, the impact of rising energy bills exacerbated the club’s financial worries, with gas and electric bills now costing the charity a whopping £6,000 to £6,500 per month – up from £4,000 in 2019, the club says.

Emma said: “It’s become harder and harder to balance the books and maintain all of the services. Any savings that can be made, every third-sector organisation has now done that. Any efficiencies that can be made, they’ve done that.

“We are now literally talking about stopping services or shutting doors at weekends and things like that, because there is no more – there’s just nothing left.

“Costs of delivering services and running buildings continue to increase, but the income is not able to keep pace with the increase in the costs.”

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Search for money ‘takes away focus’

The club has been looking at alternative sources of income, such as private hire, to fill in the gaps – but this distracts from the charity’s main mission of helping disadvantaged young people.

Emma explained: “We’ve been trying to develop some new income streams so that we don’t have to keep relying on government funding or the generosity of businesses to keep us going.

“It’s not like we’re sat here expecting businesses to keep funding stuff, we are being proactive about generating our own income, which will help, but it will take a while to come through.

“We’ve been hiring out the building. Other groups that work with children and young people during the day are contributing to the cost of the building, which is wonderful because it’s a purpose-built facility for young people.

“There should be young people in here day-in, day-out, seven days a week.”

Sarah, who has worked at the club for seven years, said she the impact of austerity meant it was ‘no surprise’ services were now struggling.

She added: “It’s not just the energy costs, everything’s gone up.

“We provide food, all the services that keep this service safe – a whole raft of health and safety, all the costs of the labour have gone up.

“Keeping the doors open is a challenge in itself, for a building of this size, to keep it safe for children and young people.

“We’ve also had events to raise money, we’re trying to think outside the box of anything to help us pay to keep these services.”

Emma added: “At times, it takes away the focus from delivering the services that we’re here to provide, but it’s necessary to be able to continue to provide them.

“We’re not on our own. I think all charities are in the same boat at the minute, the costs continue to rise, and the income cannot keep pace.”

Government responds

Asked for comment, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport did not directly address the potential loss of the counselling service – instead pointing to the NHS.

A government spokesperson said: “In the summer we provided nearly £10,000 to the Bolton Lads and Girls Club via the Million Hours Fund to support additional youth sessions for young people at risk of antisocial behaviour.

“Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure young people can access youth services and are responsible for allocating funding for local provision. It is up to local Clinical Commissioning Groups what mental health provision they fund.

“We have provided significant funding for youth services and sports facilities across the country. That includes £1.5 million in Bolton to refurbish HAFWAY youth project via the £300 million Youth Investment Fund and £41,000 via the Government, FA and Premier League's Football Foundation to build or renovate sports pitches since 22/23.”

Dr Manisha Kumar, GP and chief medical officer for NHS Greater Manchester, said: “We highly value the work of Bolton Lads and Girls Club in delivering its targeted counselling service and the support it offers to children and young people in Bolton, and we appreciate the difficulties caused by the delay in the funding confirmation.

“We are working on developing our plans as rapidly as possible and will be able to confirm the funding decision in just over two weeks, in early March.”

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