Addressing the mental health needs of looked after children in foster care: : the experiences of foster carers
WHAT IS KNOWN ON THE SUBJECT?: In the UK and internationally, the number of looked after children is increasing year on year. Mental health problems among looked after children are significantly higher than in the general population, and the uptake of mental health services for these children is low. There is a poor prognosis for children with untreated mental health problems; this is further compounded if the child is within the care system. WHAT DOES THIS PAPER ADD TO EXISTING KNOWLEDGE?: This study adds to our understanding of foster carers' experiences of the mental health needs of looked after children and demonstrates some of the challenges associated with accessing appropriate and timely mental health services. New knowledge derived from this research is that the barriers to accessing Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are not at the time of initial referral as previously reported, but later, once within the mental health system with long waiting times experienced particularly for specialist services. This study provides new insights into the experience of being a foster carer and the levels of support and resources needed that directly relate to the viability of the placement. The majority of the foster carers interviewed were from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background, previously under-represented in this research area. WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE?: A number of areas in current CAMHS provision need addressing with a focus on accessibility, consultation and support for foster carers. Waiting times need to be addressed, and improved communication with other agencies is also highlighted. CAMHS nurses are well placed to develop and deliver a comprehensive care package to foster carers, offering more tailored support to them whilst enabling the children and young people in their care to access and engage more effectively with mental health services. ABSTRACT: Introduction Despite well-documented vulnerabilities to mental health problems among the increasing population of looked after children, there continues to be poor uptake and utilization of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Aim To elicit views of foster carers regarding the mental health needs of children and adolescents in their care and their experiences of accessing mental health services. Methods A grounded theory approach and semistructured interviews with ten foster carers. Results The experience of being a foster carer was the core category, with three major themes: (1) foster carers' psychological understanding of challenging behaviour; (2) barriers to accessing CAMHS; (3) the importance of support. Discussion A key finding of this research is that barriers to accessing CAMHS were not experienced at the point of referral, but once within the mental health system. The foster carers demonstrated a proactive approach to accessing services but expressed a need for more support structures related directly to the viability of the placement. Implications for practice Mental health nurses have a pivotal role in providing a more responsive and needs-led service for this population; professional support to foster carers to include facilitating peer support; and clinical interventions for the looked after children.