Our research for a local health authority on young people's views of sexual health services highlights a widespread need for a safe space and a confidential listener who is neither parent nor teacher.
The project interviewed 147 people aged 13 to 23 in schools, FE colleges and youth centres in and around Bristol last year.
The overwhelming finding is that young people desperately need more opportunities to talk to someone sympathetic about things which worry them. They express a longing for an impartial adult to be available at the right time and place. Their spontaneous suggestion is for a clinic-based counsellor linked to schools.
The young people we interviewed wanted counsellors to be involved with their school PSE programmes, like the Hackney counsellors are. Teachers are generally seen as being subject trained and busy with lessons; they might also have a limited capacity to deal with young peoples' problems.
A counsellor in any setting is able to deal with a range of issues, easing the load both for the client and for the local professional team, as demonstrated both in the Hackney programme and also in James Wetz's Wiltshire School (TES June 1995). A more comforting environment in which to learn and mature means that children have a better chance of gaining confidence, forming relationships and making the most of themselves.
One young man, aged 18, spoke for many when he told us: "There's a lot of people that want to express their views and have got ideas, but nobody really . . . in the older generation wants to listen."
Another, aged 18, expressed the need simply; "So, like you're getting down about your problem, you don't know what to do and that makes it worse . . . so early on just to be able to talk to a counsellor about things is probably good."
The need to talk to someone older, someone "in their 40s or 50s", someone "who knew all the ins and outs of it . . . without being embarrassed" came up again and again.
Among our recommendations is that health and education services make counselling available to all young people. The counsellors would not have to be full-time, but would in the long run save a great deal of heartache on all sides. It would be a rewarding investment.
As a postscript, I'm glad to report that two recommendations have been taken up and funded by Avon Health Authority. A feasibility study was undertaken for a telephone helpline, which will be launched in November, and three courses have been set up for receptionists and other administrative staff working in young people's clinics.
Small things are happening but they are drops in the ocean. We need a broader commitment to our young people.
Frances Hudson is a research assistant at Bristol University.