Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Questions (25)

Kathleen Funchion


25. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the extra supports his Department has in place for young persons that have been severely hit by Covid-19, particularly in terms of their education, career and employment and the impact on their mental health. [31306/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

My question asks the Minister what supports are in place for young people who have been severely hit by Covid-19, particularly in terms of their education, career, employment and the impact on their mental health.

I thank the Deputy. We had a good discussion about this issue in the select committee recently. Young people have been severely affected by the restrictions brought in to protect public health during this pandemic. This has been borne out by a good deal of research, particularly a recent piece of research commissioned by my Department and undertaken by SpunOut called How's Your Head.

In recognition of the vital role played by youth work in providing support to young people, funding levels were maintained throughout the current crisis period. This enabled the youth services to continue to provide services to young people, particularly to marginalised, disadvantaged and vulnerable young people.

Early in my tenure, I was able to provide an additional small grant to support local funded organisations, youth information centres and youth clubs to defray some of their Covid-19 costs. Since then, in last week's budget, I secured an additional €5 million investment in youth services for 2021. I see this funding as supporting the front-line services as they seek to innovate in order to continue to provide critical services to vulnerable young people. I hope this significant increase in funding is seen as a recognition of the role youth services play in the lives of young people, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. My officials and I have a good working relationship with the youth sector and I will continue this engagement as we seek to support young people through this challenging period.

At a broader level, my Department is committed to leading a discussion with all relevant Departments and agencies to ensure that mental health services, educational institutions, youth services and sports clubs work together, so each is aware of the challenges young people have been facing and can help ease them back into everyday life and support their resilience. We are acting on the funding element with the significant increase in funding in the budget but also acting on the policy element. In the framework for reopening, there is a significant reference to mental health issues and the research by SpunOut fed into the framework.

I welcomed the increase. I will be honest: I was critical and stand over my criticism of the lack of funding for early years but I welcome the money that was invested for youth. It is a sector that got a bit forgotten about during Covid. I know people involved and who work in the sector did their best to reach out to young people and include them. There is a huge number of young people interested and involved in sport but there is also a huge number of people who are not. I always feel that the drama and other groups sometimes get pushed to the margins. I refer to the work, for example, of Young Irish Film Makers, of whom I am sure the Minister is aware. We have an excellent Young Irish Film Makers in Kilkenny that does amazing work. My children are involved in it. I have a child coming into the teenage years and the difference is incredible. They need emotional supports at that age and the lockdown and Covid was difficult on them. It is important we ensure that they are part of the recovery. We hear a lot of talk about economic recovery but it is important for our young people that they are not forgotten about.

As someone who fitted into the category of not being particularly sporty at that age, I recognise the importance of supporting the interests of young people beyond the area of sport. We in the Department have universal schemes and targeted schemes. The targeted schemes are to help young people, particularly in disadvantaged areas, but there is also the universal element. It is important that a young person from any area in the country should be able to avail of youth services. They are, as the Deputy outlined, so important to developing an individual's confidence, self-esteem and ability to lead. I recently engaged in a Zoom meeting with ECO-UNESCO, a group of young people focused on environmental issues. Their capacity to engage with me and to advocate was incredibly important and impressive. Their engagement with me prompted me to ensure this significant budget allocation, which is more than they asked for.

The Minister was on the Zoom conference the National Youth Council of Ireland had a few weeks ago. That was excellent. There were two young people, in particular, who addressed it.

Now that we are coming into lockdown two or phase 5, the plan is to keep schools open. The reality is that school is one important part but there are all the other social activities. Anyone who hears me speaking knows I am always talking about counselling, mental health and play therapy for kids but we also need normal, fun activities. That is why it is more important than ever that there is funding and supports there. It is not good to have so many people of a certain age group nearly locked in their rooms. They are not actually locked in their rooms but they are at that age where they are not kids and they are not adults. They do not know where they are, they are trying to figure things out for themselves and it is really difficult. I noted that the youth council said in its presentation that many people ended up not engaging, after a while, with the online supports. One can only do so much online before people miss normal human interaction.

There is no doubt that the move to level 5 presents challenges everywhere. The Deputy probably noticed yesterday that we continued to allow training for young teams. That is on the sports side of things but it is important for the issue of mental health, which the Deputy flagged.

During the previous lockdown, a lot of youth services moved online very quickly and, as the levels of restriction came down, were able to come together in smaller groups. Unfortunately, for the time being we will be back to online provision only. I think many of them have got better at it and because of some of the capital supports we have been able to put in, there might be slightly better technology. I hope that technology will be significantly enhanced next year.

I know that some groups were considering doing socially distanced drop-out visits to deliver food or little care packages containing books and so on to keep people entertained. I acknowledge the great work that has been done. We are still engaging with the sector at all times and if we see methods by which we can support their work during the next six weeks, we will use them.