Surviving Estrangement – Interview with a young person

Alongside the launch of our Surviving Estrangement report, we asked a series of questions to a young person about the experience of being estranged and how they found the process of being involved in Buttle UK's first ever co-produced report.

Tell us a bit about how you came to know Buttle. What did you get granted and how did the grant help?

I had never heard of Buttle before but when I left home at 16, my social worker had applied in desperate circumstances previously. After being plunged into lockdown as a result of COVID education became fully remote but I couldn’t attend my classes because I did not have a laptop, so we applied for a Buttle grant. I received £1500 in total and got a laptop, food voucher and some new clothes. I cannot put into words how much this helps me, I could continue to do my A levels and finished college with two Bs and an A.

With the food voucher it meant I could eat during college hours without relying on others and the clothes just meant I had more normal clothing other than wearing my boyfriend’s hand-me-downs! When I left home I just had the clothes I was wearing and after a week, I got a suitcase with a few basics. I didn’t really have anything of my own so this grant allowed me to become my own person.

Having the laptop made the biggest difference because despite the turbulence of my personal life I could continue what the norm was for my peer group. Buttle is only a small charity but in the future I hope they can help other estranged young people stay on track and focus on the future.

You’ve been taking part in our Estranged Young People project. How has that been? What skills have you learnt?

This has been a huge project for our group and I know we’re all so grateful to be a part of it. I guess one of the biggest personal things I have learnt is that I am not alone.

When I left home there seemed to be a misunderstanding of why I needed to leave and I felt like no other teen felt the way I did, but then we started this project and I met an amazing group of young people going through the same struggles. We have frequent contact and get to share our experiences that reminisce with one another. Feeling alone in the process was the scariest part of leaving home but realising that we have all had difficult times does help, and we are now all moving onto fuller lives.

In the way of skills, I would say I have learnt what makes a a good interview, how to be approachable and friendly so that the young people and referrers opened up to us. I learnt how to analyse a lot of documents as well as condensing information to find the main objectives. It has been a challenge but so worth it because we are doing this work for change. The support from the charity has also been amazing both in the group work and in our personal lives.

The insights into how referrers see estranged young people has probably been the most fascinating part of the study because where we felt let down by services, they felt like their hands were tied so it highlighted issues within the greater picture, perhaps more senior such as the government funding etc.

Overall, what do you think is the biggest crisis facing estranged young people in the UK at the moment?

This is such a huge question, but if I had to pick one struggle, I would probably say mental health. This has such a huge impact on young people anyways let alone those of us who are estranged from our families.

I have suffered from mental health issues in the past 3-4 years, my anxiety was awful when I left home and I really struggled in social settings. I was then diagnosed with depression which made me feel isolated and hopeless.

The general lack of understanding of mental health and estrangement makes us feel more isolated than most. I believe there needs to be greater education into anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self harm and estrangement. Having to explain how you feel as well describing what you are experiencing means teenagers shut down and try to internally deals with issues. This is neither healthy nor effective.

Making a difference, the idea mental health comes in so many different forms and with the lack of education in the sector, means we are all tarnished with the same brush and treated in the same way. The true crisis is the lack of services – the lack of available, affordable counselling services, the lack of safeguarding procedures and the lack of medical professionals with knowledge of the issues who just put us on medication as a solution.

What would you say is the most interesting thing you’ve learnt from speaking to lots of young people?

The variety of young people we spoke to was fascinating and it was eye opening to see the inner failings of the system. It was shocking to understand the experiences other young people had been through and what they went through on their own. One very interesting thing I learnt from talking to the young people was that estrangement happens to people from all walks of life and there isn’t a type of person who is estranged.

Some of the young people were really nervous to be open about what they had experienced, and it made it quite emotional – they (like me) had never had the chance to fully express how they felt and never felt truly listened to by someone. Although all the young people had all lived variations of estrangement all the stories had similarities – like the fact that most of the young people had gone through CAMHS and had felt unsupported.

And what would you say is the most important thing you’ve learnt from speaking to referrers?

I think going through estrangement and having all the different experiences with sectors made me very negative about them. I am still negative about some of them because the advice etc was inadequate. But talking to some of the referrers made me realise that the people who do these jobs, at least most of them, do it because they care. But their hands are tied, they have to do too much paperwork and estranged young people become numbers and figures on paper.

I think the referrers opened my eyes to how under pressure the services were especially after covid. This was helpful because it showed that maybe the people who I had had in the past, did care and just couldn’t help.

Although a lot of the referrers were willing to be honest and open, others were very closed and not very inclusive of which another young person who was involved in the interview.

What would you like to see changed for estranged young people, and who do you think can help to make this change happen?

There isn’t enough space to write what needs changing in order to support estranged young people. I think the Government needs to recognise estrangement for what it is, a separate and independent issue within society that isn’t just rebellious teens causing a fight. I think estrangement needs to be taught so people can become educated in what it takes to move away from abuse and neglect. Making this change will be a long journey but I think this is down to the government and the NHS to accommodate young people.

I believe the biggest issue with estrangement is that people think the hard part is over when you leave home – yet the struggle is only just beginning. Although I think the government is responsible for the vast proportion of support networks for young people, I also believe other sectors need to take initiative to understand estrangement. For instance, teachers need to take estrangement into consideration when conducting safeguarding procedures.

Social workers and support staff should see that funds and grants are great but what is really needed is time and reliability. I myself went through so many social workers which just didn’t help anything because I had to keep going to square one with my story which made me close up more.

The financial strain on estranged young people is also not recognised – the cost of staying in education, the cost of living, the cost of food and the cost of therapy. The average cost of therapy in the UK ranges anywhere from £40 – £120. This is something that should be changed because therapy and opening up can be the best medicine sometimes. Free counselling isn’t available when it’s needed – the waiting lists take months to get through and when we do get seen it isn’t consistent enough or reliable.

Do you have any advice for young people who are dealing with estrangement?

Don’t give up. I think the biggest thing is to keep going, when one door slams in your face, use it as a steppingstone to find an alternative. It is lonely being estranged and it can feel overwhelming at times but don’t suffer in silence, reach out to friends, teachers, professionals, and charities like this one.

You do have to grow up a lot faster, but it has been 3 years since I left home and I’m happier than ever, just think in 3 years’ time you will be where you are wishing to be now. It will be worth the struggle, all the trauma, hard work, let downs all make you stronger. It may take a week, a month, or a year but you’re not on your own.

I think the hardest thing I was always told was ‘it will get easier’ because in the heat of the moment it seems like stupid advice, but it is true, things get easier, and you learn to deal with things in a new way. Sometimes the best thing you can do is let go of the past in order to build a future. It was the hardest lesson I had to learn, and some days are still bad days, but a bad day doesn’t have to be a bad life.

What is the most rewarding part of working alongside Buttle UK?

The idea of change, the idea that together we could produce a worthy project that illustrates the struggles and issues in the systems. Unfortunately, we have already lived through the struggle but the idea that we could perhaps make it easier for another generation of estranged young teens is something I hold onto.

The people who work for Buttle seem to genuinely care about making a difference and it’s been so refreshing to have our voices heard and acted upon. This is so different to my experience with other sectors or charities where the actual experience and feelings of a person never seem to matter.

Meeting new people has been a very meaningful part of working with Buttle too because it’s made me feel less lonely.  For instance, making the trip to London for the staff meeting made me feel a part of something.

For safeguarding purposes this young person has asked to remain anonymous. Photograph provided by Georgia Kay Williams photography.

You can read the full report here.