Kids love their mobile phones. They love watching TikTok, they love scrolling through Instagram. Why wouldn’t they, when images and video are easy to digest and instantly available on social media platforms?

It’s this love of the moving image that mental health practitioners for children and youngsters can tap into – and they’re starting to do just that, using animation.

The NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) assess and treat young people up to the age of 18 with emotional, behavioural or mental health difficulties.

Teams of nurses, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, support workers and social workers work together to support and treat children and young people with conditions including depression, eating disorders, self-harm, anger, bipolar disorder and anxiety, among others.

But since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, CAMHS have seen a massive rise in demand for their support.*

With a lack of funding to match this demand, waiting lists for the initial triage assessment can be very long, and waiting lists for the ensuing treatment also lengthy, depending on the severity of the young person’s condition and which young people CAMHS deem to be in most urgent need.

But CAMHS staff are not the only ones struggling – parents, carers and the youngsters themselves can feel lost and confused, as they wait for assessment dates and battle to understand the organisation’s referral process.

One way CAMHS practitioners are helping patients navigate its system is with animation.

Animation has the power to convey meaning through images in creative and dynamic ways, describing and explaining concepts that seem at first too big, too small, too complex or too abstract.

It works in ways that video, a more literal medium, does not. Video engages the viewer at a cognitive level, whereas animation is seductive. As it’s not ‘real’, children, especially, suspend their cognitive engagement and are lulled into simply watching.

My ‘Confused about CAMHS?’ animation explains the organisation’s triage process, its tiered system of needs-based support, which healthcare professionals will be involved and who to call when help is needed.

It is an engaging and easy-to-follow animation that allows parents and children to absorb the information more readily and to feel in control of what will happen; a creative and relatable way to describe CAMHS.

CAMHS practitioners can, as an adjunct to explaining the referral process to parents and carers, send them links to this animation so they can refresh their understanding, become familiar and comfortable with what will happen and understand what they need to tell healthcare professionals during the journey, eg what tier they expect their young person to be referred into.

This understanding of and confidence in the service is crucial at a time when the child being referred might be at a traumatic point in their lives and is nervous about the process they’re facing.

Not only does the animation ease the young person’s progress through this journey, it also helps CAMHS practitioners speed up referrals by taking away the need to explain the system. Parents come into the provisional assessment armed with knowledge of what is expected of them and their child, and can immediately provide the practitioner with the information they need.

How does CAMHS work?

Children and young people are referred to CAMHS usually by their GP, but also by their social worker or teacher, and will be put on a waiting list for the initial assessment. This assessment, a triage process, will then place the young person into one of the CAMHS’s four tiers, depending on what sort of support is needed.

  • Tier one is for children who present as low risk and offers early intervention support.
  • Tier two offers more targeted services to children about whom there is some concern.
  • Tier three is for children who present as higher risk and offers more specialist services such as psychiatry and support for eating disorders.
  • Tier four is for those young people who are considered at highest risk and offers specialised and crisis treatment services.
CAMHS services are locally run, have different structures, and the process of referral and assessment can differ between health boards throughout the UK.

Parents and carers need to know how to support the young person themselves, and where to find interim support until CAMHS professionals can see them.

There is a lot of information on the internet, provided by a variety of websites and organisations, about the CAMHS process. But this in itself can be daunting, hard to find and difficult to absorb during a period that is stressful and even traumatic.

The animation freely available to parents and children arms them with information, empowers them and restores a sense of agency during a potentially traumatic period.

It is easier to digest than a leaflet or other written information and – most apt at a time when children in the UK spend, on average, 114 minutes per day on TikTok** – is immediately accessible; the young person being referred can jump on to their smartphone and watch the animation whenever and wherever they feel most comfortable.

Benefits of animation

  • Animation voiceovers can be quickly translated and revoiced in any language at a rough cost of only £1000.
  • From script to screen, an animation can be created in two weeks – ideal for ‘disaster’ work.
  • While the initial animation can cost about £10k, subsequent digital copies are completely free (unlike print). Small amendments to ‘end slates’ to, for example, localise helpline numbers cost very little, so one trauma video can be used 10,000 times nationally at pretty much no extra cost.
  • Animation works brilliantly across all social media channels so it’s instantly and freely accessible and provides a ‘language’ for the person and their caregivers to understand what’s going on.
  • Still images can be taken from the animation and used within other collateral. For example, a dozen still images can be laid out in front of a child, enabling them to choose which image from the animation spoke to them (a good way to introduce tricky subjects, eg sexual abuse).