On World Mental Health Day, our founder Bea reflects on how it's time to take action in new ways.
On World Mental Health Day, our founder Bea reflects on her learning around what young people need and are capable of.
Six years ago, as a young person and a trainee psychologist, I realised that we didn’t need more mental health awareness, we needed viable and sustainable ways of addressing the causes of young people’s distress. There’s a big difference between talking about change that is needed and taking action to make our demands a reality. But how do we get there? I definitely don’t have all the answers but I have some ideas and insights into how progress can be made. I’ve learned by watching, listening and working alongside young people and realising how much they are capable of when they are trusted to take part in the quest for solutions.
I’ve been finding ways to create spaces in education for young people to explore mental health in a different way, one where insights can be turned into action.
I work with them to design new ways of addressing the issues that directly affect their mental health. I have had the privilege of bearing witness to young people sharing their inner world with myself and each other, in classrooms for 3 years now. I follow them on a journey as we commit to exploring this area of life with each other every week for 2 terms. There are many things I have learnt in those rooms that I wish people could know.
The first idea I would challenge is that young people find it hard to talk about mental health, and that we need more mental health ‘awareness’.
Young people often tell me they find mental health awareness days patronising, repetitive and dull. They know they have difficult thoughts and emotions, they can google search what is being told to them and many already have. They want an opportunity to find answers to their problems. And yes, there can be an intense and sheepish feeling in the first session we have together but very soon I notice it transforming into what feels like a box of stories starting to open as they are given an opportunity to explore their experience more personally. Young people are extremely eloquent when speaking about their mental health and are often more open and willing to share their experiences than most adults.
They share instances where they have felt judged, key times in life when something affected them deeply, sometimes seemingly insignificant events are revealed to have had a huge personal impact. They share, reflect and find meaning in their experiences, together. The young people I work with always listen to each other with a humble respect – nobody interrupts. They acknowledge each other and relate with compassion and gentleness as they begin to recognise that they are not alone in their suffering and that they can explore their experiences together. The maturity and emotional intelligence they show when discussing traumatic events is humbling and compelling.
We don’t speak about mental health in the way a lot of people do. I don’t mention disorders, or chemical imbalances. I don’t speak with clinical language or psychological jargon. We talk about life and the emotional impact it can have. Sometimes I’ll teach them something I found useful, introduce them to a model through which they can reflect on their experience. The less I am an ‘expert’, the more they relax. Sometimes, I share about times I have experienced anxiety, fear of failure and hopelessness. They always seem to breathe a sigh of relief to know I feel these feelings too, that nobody is immune to the struggles of life. Often, we see psychologists as experts, as the bearers of knowledge and solutions. I find this idea extremely unhelpful when working with young people and notice the biggest shifts in their perspective when they start to realise they hold the knowledge they need within and among each other. Guiding them to find the answers, rather than presenting them with information, creates the biggest internal shifts.
There’s an energy that often emerges in these spaces, it’s an energy of deep understanding and realisation.
Sometimes they will tell me they finally have words to describe something they have known but couldn’t put into language, or they have felt a sense of peace for the first time in months. Sometimes they are moved to tears when listening to each other’s stories. Sometimes they are exhausted from their day at school and just want to sleep. But I have seen time and time again that with the correct space provided for them, young people demonstrate enormous courage and compassion. They learn quickly, absorbing and integrating psychological skills and knowledge faster than most adults I know. It often feels like they have been waiting to be given these spaces. They want to be there.
Perhaps the greatest misconception that I feel compelled to challenge is that young people are less able to contribute to systems change because of their age.
They have incredibly creative, intuitive and fast minds. They work at a speed I sometimes find difficult to keep up with. They clearly see what the problems are and can prototype effective solutions to complex issues in two hours. Their teams function as highly efficient think tanks around young people’s mental health. I’ll give you an example:
A few months ago, a team recognised social media was causing problems for their peers. One of the students came up with an idea. He wanted to design an app for his school to reduce social media use. The idea was brilliant: students would compete in teams, on an app, to reduce their use of the big social media platforms. In two months, he had designed and coded the entire app, found a way to measure their screen time on different platforms and produced an in-app leaderboard so teams could see who was winning.
“It’s much harder to reduce your social media use when everyone is on it, so why not find a way to get everybody to use it less by competing to not let each other down.”
He had tapped into a psychological truth: we are more likely to behave pro-socially if we think people are watching, and that we are motivated to commit to our personal goals when we feel we are part of a team. He registered the app on Android and tested it out in his college. It worked. If this was a publicly funded research project, it could have potentially cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and taken a few years to build. Give young people their voice and they will show you the solutions.
Last year, students across six colleges came up with more than 70 ideas like this of how to solve issues affecting their mental health. Their challenge is to focus on addressing the causes of problems, not the symptoms. We only have time for them to focus on three projects per team and that often feels like a lot due to the time limitations within schools. But they are incredibly focused, driven and reflective. Each week they think about how they can improve their idea, they iterate it, evaluate it, try again. Just like social entrepreneurs.
There’s much more I could say, but one thing I am sure of is that there exists a huge amount of hope and potential for changing the landscape of mental health education in schools. I have found three ingredients to be essential to this: space, time, and reducing the power imbalance between young people and professionals. These are resources schools are lacking and need help to create, but they are being created. Young people hold enormous power, and we must be careful not to restrict them, or misunderstand them. Because in many ways, they are leading the charge and inspiring the change we so often talk about needing.
There’s hope to be found in many places but it requires that we lay down ideas about ‘experts’ having the solutions, and find ways to make space for the people in need to show us the way forward.