Max factor

At the age of just 14 Lauren Murray* was addicted to heroin. She voluntarily turned to Project Max, a Bristol-based drug, alcohol and mental health service for young people in the criminal justice system. Drugs worker Colin Laing says: “We referred her to the local young people’s drug treatment service and then provided sessions on relapse prevention.”

Murray also became involved with the project’s art group. She has since returned to education and is taking a modern apprenticeship in hairdressing and beauty therapy. “Her lifestyle-oriented outcomes enabled her to put her experiences with drug misuse behind her and pursue more positive activities and training,” says Laing.

Mark Hamilton, planning and development manager, Bristol youth offending team, says: “Project Max is about working together to bring about change that maximises – hence the name – young people’s strengths and resources.”

It started when the specialist nurse newly seconded from the child and adolescent mental health service (Camhs) and the Yot’s named drug worker found themselves increasingly working together with young people despite receiving different referrals from case managers.

Specialist nurse Becki Robinson says: “I came to the Yot as a health worker with a focus on mental health. There was a lot of overlap with our clients – and we quickly discovered that, because of demand, we couldn’t really meet their needs.” The suggestion that there should be a co-located team from different agencies to deal with young people’s needs provided the seeds for Project Max to grow.

Hamilton says: “Mental health services for young people in the criminal justice system were limited and most of those were inflexible and inaccessible. We wanted a better way of doing it.”

For Laing, flexibility is crucial. He says: “The most important thing about Project Max is, because it’s voluntary, it goes beyond the duration of any order. So if a young person is on a two-month order, for us that might just be the getting-to-know-you time; we won’t even have started work. If we’re going to work with young people to help them get ready to change their lives we need time to build up trust, which with some is hard work.”

Drugs and accommodation worker Jon Wright agrees: “We’re able to be flexible about our appointment times. If you’re counselling drug users, giving them an appointment time is meaningless. We’re able to tell them to turn up between 10 and 5 and we’ll see them. That works really well for young people.”

Wright’s own appointment to the team – funded through the Bristol drug action team, now the community safety and drug partnership – was in recognition that young people with drug abuse issues also had housing problems. He says: “If people are homeless all the other interventions being put in around them aren’t going to work. The problem is that often there aren’t the housing resources in Bristol.”

The team also has a youth justice support worker, Matt Lusty. “Part of my role is to befriend young people, involve them in constructive leisure activities – for example, we’ve done a three-day DJ workshop – and help them with general stuff such as cooking.”

It’s also Lusty’s job simply to be around when young people turn up at the project. Its accommodation is attractive, accessible to young people and has ample space. “It’s a luxury, yes,” says Robinson. “Most Yots probably would not even have an interview room but we have our office, three one-to-one rooms (one of which can be used for small groups) and a large, comfortable group work room, reception area and kitchen.” In this sort of setting, access to psychology and psychiatry can happen in a more friendly way.

In essence, it’s everything under one roof. Hamilton says: “The alternative, which exists in many other parts of the country, is that referrals are made to the elements that are within Project Max, which are often in mainstream services, and young people end up waiting and waiting for access to those services.”

* Not her real name

Lesson learned

  • The direct link to Camhs, not least through Robinson’s secondment, is invaluable. “That the forensic psychologist and forensic psychiatrist at Camhs meet us monthly when we can refer directly and verbally is unusual,” she says.
  • Because young people largely volunteer for the service, the staff can work on individual programmes that best meet their needs. “Whatever suits them, we’ll work with that,” says Laing.
  • Because of the chaotic lives that young people involved in the criminal justice system usually lead, they often need the flexibility with which the project works. “Our team approach means we can offer a greater intensity of daily support,” says Robinson.
  • Being co-located reinforces physically the teamwork approach.

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