A CORONAVIRUS fund grant is helping a youth charity tackle an increase in mental health issues among school pupils.

The Bridge Youth Project Trust, which works in 25 schools across the county, has been awarded £20,000 from Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund to increase its work in primary and secondary schools.

The group leads RE lessons, assemblies and support groups in primary and secondaries schools as well as weekly one-to-one mentoring for older pupils by volunteers from local churches. Director Alex Ewing said the cumulative effect of three lockdowns, cancelled exams and uncertainty over the future has had a catastrophic effect on many pupils that has left them anxious and disaffected.

“A big thing with the GCSEs not happening there is a sense of ‘why bother?’, we have seen a lot of young people who are close to giving up because they have worked hard for no outcome,” he said.

“There is a lack of engagement about their future and a lack of aspiration. It’s almost a lack of hope. There are huge pressures on families and there is an impact on schoolwork. A number of pupils have just refused to go into school and completely disengaged because of Covid.”

The charity has part-time staff covering lessons, assemblies in 19 primary schools, including St James and Trinity in Devizes, Marden Vale in Calne and St Bartholomew’s in Wootton Bassett and lay chaplains in secondaries one or two days a week.

Mr Ewing said his staff are there to provide a listening ear and a safe space for pupils to talk about the issues that concern them.

“Our two streams of work that have been emerging very, very clearly over the last few years have been spiritual wellbeing and mental health and the latter is the one that has really been growing.”

The charity provides its services at low cost to schools – primaries pay just £400 for a year’s support – and for the first time ever it has a waiting list of schools wanting to bring it in.

“Referrals to mental health services have been through the roof and schools really need support,” he said. “Because of this we are just being inundated so having support from Wiltshire Community Foundation and being able to bring more people on board, run more courses and deliver more sessions will just make such a difference.”

Covid restrictions stopped volunteer mentors going into secondary schools when they re-opened after lockdown, so the charity devised a virtual ten-week programme, delivered by the mentors, aimed at helping young people who were struggling with going back to the classroom.

Mr Ewing said: “The aim of it was to help young people to reflect and debrief from the year that had passed and to get them thinking again, re-engaging with the different areas of their lives and thinking ahead to the future, which has been really hard for young people to do. For many of them it has felt like time has stood still and there is nothing to look forward to.

“Mental health has had such a big impact on their learning. Even the kids who were doing okay are struggling and those who were struggling are just at crisis stage.”

The programme will be in three schools by September but Mr Ewing hopes more will take it up.

The charity, based at Sarum Academy in Salisbury, began in 1994 as a Christian youth service but began going into schools when it realised there was a demand for help with RE lessons that had been squeezed out of the curriculum and it could have more of an impact.

“If you are really going to make a difference in young people’s lives you need to be in the schools, where there just isn’t the capacity to meet all their needs,” said Mr Ewing. “We want to do more in more schools and have a greater reach.

“The grant has given us more capacity, helped us to plan ahead and appoint another secondary school worker. Particularly in this year when there is so much need to be able to say yes to schools who need us, this is great.

“Even the schools don’t know what the long-term effect of all this will be in the future. We haven’t seen the impact yet, it is far from over and the next year is going to be about journeying through with young people and bringing them back to where they were pre-Covid. So many young people were progressing well towards their goals and dreams and then Covid just threw everything up into the air.”

Wiltshire Community Foundation joint chief executive Fiona Oliver said: “We know from talking tom many of the youth charities we have funded that the long-term impact of Covid on young people is still an unknown quantity. We feel it is important to fund groups like The Bridge Youth Trust because of the huge good it is doing in allowing students to give voice to their fears and anxieties about a return to normality.

“We can only do this because of generosity of the donors who have supported our fund and we know we are going to rely on them even more heavily in the coming year because the need in Wiltshire is greater than ever.”

Find out more about The Bridge Youth Project at the-bridge.org.uk and the work of the community foundation at wiltshirecf.org.uk.