Excellence in Youth Work: See Me Youth Champions

Community based youth work is recognised as a powerful asset for Scotlands young people. A diverse and innovative sector that meets young people where they are ‘at’, youth work provides positive and empowering opportunities and relationships that improve life chances, reduce health inequalities and are a game-changer for many young people across Scotland. (Rachael Hood, Mental Health Foundation)

This year, in partnership with NHS Health Scotland, we sponsored Scotland’s first ‘Mental Health and wellbeing’ award at YouthLink Scotland’s National Youth Work Awards 2018 to recognise the power of youth work when it comes to helping young people to stay mentally well.We spoke to See Me about their Youth Champions. 

Tell us briefly about the work that you are doing

At See Me we have one big message for young people in Scotland, that it is okay not to be okay. This is a message that came from our Youth Champions and one that we want to become part of everyday life for young people, and the adults in their lives. It’s so important, because we all have mental health.

Our Education and Young People’s programme is all about empowering young people, to look after their own mental health, to understand why stigma and discrimination is so devastating, and to help them look out for their pals.

We do this though a Whole School approach where staff and pupils can learn and work within a supportive community in an environment free from mental health stigma and discrimination.

Stigma isn’t just an issue that impacts on adults. We did research which found that that just 37% of people aged 15 to 25 years would tell someone if they were finding it difficult to cope, whereas 78% would mention it to others if they were physically ill. Young people reported that they often struggled to find the words to describe how they are feeling.

What is unique about your approach?

We have 36 Youth Champions, who all have experienced tough times with their own mental health. They train pupils to be Schools Champions who can lead in changing cultures in schools. We think it is so important to have young people working with and training young people, in things like Scottish Mental Health First Aid (SMHFA) and the WOYM pack. Things change quickly when you’re young, and most of our staff haven’t been in school for at least ten years, so we want pupils to be able to relate to the people who are training them.

We are the only youth programme in Scotland with young volunteers who have been trained as trainers in SMHFA and are training other young people in the qualification. Young people felt that having the same training and knowledge in every school was important so everyone would know where to get support.

The pack has had 686 downloads, 142 people trained in Scottish Mental Health First Aid (of which 61 are pupils) 42 staff attended peer workshops and 349 pupils have attended peer workshops. The resources and training are free to download and access here.

What have you learned about how youth work can impact  mental health and wellbeing that might help other services change their way of doing things?

In the spirit of this involvement, we thought it was best for one of our Youth Champions to help us answer this one:

Through volunteering for See Me as a young champion I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact our campaigns have had on young people. See Me really listen to what their volunteers have to say and I think that’s why their campaigns are so successful; they target the issues that real people are facing today.

I think it really helps to have young volunteers going in to teach other young people about mental health issues, stigma, and help-seeking (particularly going into schools), because it’s easier for the young people to relate to us and feel comfortable speaking their mind instead of seeing us as teachers.

It’s amazing to see the transformation in schools that have worked with See Me, both in the attitudes of the students but also in what help the schools provide and the confidence of the teachers to provide this help. There has definitely been a shift in mental health culture over recent years.

Being a volunteer has also had a big positive impact on my own life. I’ve met other volunteers with similar experiences to my own, who really understand what it’s like to walk in my shoes, and we’ve also been able to learn from each other’s differences; some of them are now my closest friends. I’ve learnt so much about how to express my opinions and experiences effectively through the media, how to plan and lead workshops for groups of young people, and to make funding pitches. Training me in mental health first aid has given me the confidence to help others who are in a mental health crisis and signpost them to appropriate help. These are all things that will really help in my own future career, where I hope to continue working in mental health or public health.

Volunteering for See Me has shaped who I am as a person, giving me confidence to speak out about issues surrounding mental health and to encourage others to seek help.

Self-Care is incredibly important to the impact you can make on others, how do you keep yourself and team mentally well?

Working within the mental health sector and with young people is incredibly rewarding, however, at times very hard work, making it difficult to prioritise our own wellbeing. 

What we do have is a working environment where it's okay to be human, where we display empathy and compassion and feel able to discuss our feelings whether positive or as a result of challenges. We ensure that there is space to be honest about our own wellbeing and ensure a network of support within the team to ensure that we are embodying the message that we share with our youth volunteers. This may be through supporting others in tasks to manage workload, organising a walk at lunch, allowing time to decompress after a stressful period, ensuring we refill each others cups of coffee and even just checking in with are ‘how are you doing today?’.  Our organisation also puts support in place such as the Employee Assistance Programme, providing a safety net of support to ensure our wellbeing.

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