Mental health and wellbeing column: Pastoral support in challenging times

Bethan Thomas
Sunday, August 1, 2021

In the first of three informative columns from London Youth Choirs, operations manager Bethan Thomas shares how LYC's foundational commitment to pastoral care ensured an immediate and creative response to the curveball of lockdown.

 London Youth Choir social evening
London Youth Choir social evening

As anyone who has ever listened to a song and had a bit of a cry knows, music is an incredibly emotional affair, and can evoke things which might otherwise remain hidden. Pastoral care has been at the heart of what we do at London Youth Choirs (LYC) since our inception. Before the pandemic, we'd already developed a strong pastoral set-up with a dedicated pastoral team for all rehearsals and concert days; a standing offer for informal drop-ins at any time for our young people to have a chat about anything.

Now, more than ever, mental health and wellbeing in young people is at the forefront of our minds – and for good reason. According to a survey carried out by Young Minds (, 67 per cent of those between the ages of 13 and 25 believed that the pandemic would have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. As the prospect of lockdown became imminent in March 2020, it was already clear to LYC that we would need to do everything we could to keep our young people connected, engaged, and supported in the weeks and months ahead.

The ‘Happiness Zone’

When the first lockdown was announced, LYC moved online within weeks. We developed a new site called LYC Live that was our go to place for all things choir. As well as being the destination for information about online rehearsals, workshops, and musical activities, I decided early on to make it a place to spread joy and positivity – and so developed the ‘Happiness Zone’.

This page was updated regularly with activities for members, an online noticeboard for them to share creative ideas, messages, and pictures, as well as links to support sites such as Young Minds, The Mix and Childline. Over the year it has developed, from signing up for a pen pal to half-term yoga or art workshops, and now features a weekly Spotify playlist for members to contribute to. Perhaps most importantly for some, it also includes ‘Pet of the Week’!

LYC members during lockdown on ‘What LYC means to me’

‘It has provided a place for me to improve my confidence. I remember coming in when I joined in Training Choir, barely able to stutter out a sentence to anybody, and now I'm confident enough to talk in front of 55 people on Zoom.’

‘Even though we're not together, it's so well organised and we're such a good community.’

‘I get to sing with people every week who love music just as much as I do. It's a huge honour.’

(see video below)

Addressing what's missing

Following a transition to live choir sessions via Zoom each week in the summer term, it became clear that one thing was missing – the chance for our members to check-in with us one-on-one. Previously, they might arrive early to rehearsal for a bit of a chat, or pop out of rehearsal if something wasn't right. Now, confined to their own rooms and kept on mute for most of the time, this opportunity was lost.

We took the decision then to provide two additional pastoral options. The first ‘safe space’ is a messaging service for members to tell us about anything that was bothering them in writing. They can leave their name or remain anonymous and I, as head of safeguarding, would receive their message. (It's worth noting that this service signposts our members to a number of instant support services and highlights that we are not able to monitor it outside of office hours).

The ability for some of our older members to ‘vent’ has proven invaluable, and often helped to facilitate the second of our pastoral options – the ability to sign up for a chat with myself and another senior pastoral carer during our choir rehearsals over Zoom. Members have the opportunity to request a chat via an online form, and therefore check in with us regularly.

Reconnecting in person

As we begin to return to rehearsals in person, we have new challenges to navigate, re-learning how to sing together and work as a team. We're also going to have to adapt pastoral care as we come back together, take the time to let our young people reconnect once more and find friendships back in real life. The main things are to keep listening to students, to keep signposting further support, and to keep providing a safe space for students when they need it.

Pastoral Care toolkit – four top tips from LYC

  • Take advantage of professional training offers – for example, MHFA England offer exceptional Youth Mental Health First Aid training.
  • Share the load – wherever possible, build a pastoral team with whom you can share advice and talk to when things get tough.
  • Be creative and use the ideas of your young people – our ‘Happiness Zone’ is crowdsourced.
  • Signpost – don't forget you're not always the expert. Make sure you know where to direct young people for further support if they need it.