Improving the wellbeing and mental health of young people

Started in 2016, HeadStart is a six-year, £67.4 million National Lottery funded programme set up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. HeadStart aims to explore and test new ways to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people aged 10 to 16 and prevent serious mental health issues from developing.

Aims & approach

What is HeadStart doing?

HeadStart looks at how young people’s mental wellbeing is affected by their experiences at school, their ability to access the community services they need, their home life and relationship with family members, and their interaction with digital technology.

Working in schools, and with families, charities, community and public services, the HeadStart partnerships are designing, testing and implementing different approaches to:

  • build young people’s emotional resilience
  • respond to the early signs of common mental health problems
  • provide additional joined-up support when and where it is needed.

By raising awareness of young people’s mental wellbeing, the HeadStart partnerships also support adults to know how to spot the early signs of problems, know what they can do to provide support, and where to go to get more specialised help.

People in the lead

Young people with first-hand experience of the issues they face are best placed to shape potential solutions. Because of this they play a key role in all aspects of the programme, including design, commissioning, delivery and evaluation.

Each partnership has a panel of young people that contributes to and shapes the design of services in that area. They can also get involved through awareness raising campaigns, mentoring, online surveys and advisory groups, and are even involved in the recruitment of new HeadStart staff.


We are working with the HeadStart partnerships to identify ongoing learning from the programme. Our forthcoming briefing will outline HeadStart’s achievements to date, as well as learning around supporting young people to build resilience and cope with emerging problems with their mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Based on our ongoing work on this programme briefing, we believe that some of our key achievements to date are:

  • ensuring young people play a central role in all aspects of the programme
  • collecting evidence on young people’s wellbeing to inform our work
  • working with schools to help them develop a tailored approach to young people’s mental health and wellbeing
  • giving practitioners the skills, knowledge and confidence to support young people
  • working collaboratively to encourage systems and policy change in our local areas.


We evaluate HeadStart throughout the course of the programme and share the things we’ve learned.

The National Lottery Community Fund has commissioned an expert team led by the Evidence Based Practice Unit, a collaboration between University College London and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. The partners in this learning team include Common Room, The University of Manchester, the Child Outcomes Research Consortium and London School of Economics and Political Science.

A core element of the evaluation is an annual survey on wellbeing. completed by young people in HeadStart schools. The evaluation also includes interviews with young people to explore their experience in more depth, and research with staff to understand programme delivery.

Together, this helps us understand the impact of the programme and provide insights into the resilience and mental wellbeing of young people in HeadStart schools.

In 2017, more than 30,000 young people in Year 7 (aged 11 to 12) and Year 9 (aged 13 to 14) completed the wellbeing survey, across 114 schools. Similar numbers took part in 2018. The survey will be repeated each year following the Year 7s through to Year 11, and collecting snapshot data from Year 9s until 2021.

In February 2020, approximately 170 people, including policy makers, researchers and young people, attended the HeadStart conference.

Topics on the day included: gender differences in emotional wellbeing; how adults can improve support for young people with mental health difficulties and what helps or prevents young people from talking about mental health.

Young people were central to the day’s proceedings. They helped to plan the event, took part in table discussions, helped chair the conference and concluded the day with a young people’s panel sharing their thoughts on HeadStart and what it has meant to them.

You can read the write up of the conference in the June 2020 HeadStart Heads Up policy briefing (PDF 11.5MB) or read Anna Freud Centre’s Young Champion Maddi’s thoughts on the conference.

Our responses to Government


Our programme partners

Between 2016 and 2021, the six HeadStart partnerships will design, test and deliver tailored programmes of support which respond to the local context, environment and needs of young people.

  • HeadStart Blackpool

    HeadStart Blackpool

    £12.1 million

    Driven by local young people, HeadStart Blackpool is building a Resilience Revolution across the town to align with the local authority’s priority to create stronger communities through social action. Visit website
  • HeadStart Kernow

    HeadStart Kernow

    £10.2 million

    HeadStart Kernow aims to create a shared understanding of young people’s mental wellbeing across the whole of Cornwall, so no matter where a young person lives in the county, they can access the support they need. Visit website
  • HeadStart Hull

    HeadStart Hull

    £9.4 million

    HeadStart Hull is building a scaffold of support for young people so they can identify trusted adults and are able to talk about their worries and access support at the earliest opportunity. Visit website
  • HeadStart Kent

    HeadStart Kent

    £11 million

    HeadStart Kent is championing prevention and early intervention when young people are at risk of their emotional wellbeing being impacted by trauma such as domestic abuse. Visit website
  • HeadStart Newham

    HeadStart Newham

    £11.7 million

    HeadStart Newham is supporting young people with emerging mental ill health through peer mentoring, social action projects and a behaviour change course facilitated by youth workers. Visit website
  • HeadStart Wolverhampton

    HeadStart Wolverhampton

    £10.5 million

    HeadStart Wolverhampton is trialling a new, city-wide approach to supporting young people’s mental health that is driven by innovative digital approaches, awareness raising and anti-stigma campaigns. Visit website

Support and Guidance directory (HeadStart Wolverhampton)
Whether you’re a young person, a parent or a professional, the HeadStart Support and Guidance directory is your launchpad for exploring the websites, videos, organisations and more that can offer the support you need.

What does consent mean to young people? (HeadStart Blackpool)
Ever wondered about consent, what it means and what it’s all about? Our fantastic young ‘researchers of the revolution’ group have made this video which should help clear up any queries you may have

What is co-production? (HeadStart Wolverhampton)
Co-production means working together to achieve a common goal. Everyone thinks and everyone talks. Everyone is involved in every step of the process. Headstart is founded on co-production and it runs through everything that we do.

Peer Mentoring Toolkit (HeadStart Kent)

This Peer Mentoring Toolkit (PDF 2.1MB) has been designed for any organisation working with children and young people, to enable them to set up and embed a peer mentoring support programme