Involving young people in mental health policy: what, why and how?

50% of long-term mental health conditions manifest by the age of 14. As such, early intervention and the adoption of a lifespan approach to tackling mental health problems is a key priority at the Mental Health Foundation.

How can we, as an organisation, best influence the policy decisions that will promote the wellbeing of young people? By working collaboratively with these groups – the so-called ‘experts by experience’. Young people, with or without mental health problems, are best placed to provide insight into the impact policy decisions have on their wellbeing.

Decisions made for young people should be made with young people.

Ensuring the youth voice is heard during policy development couldn’t come at a more important time. Children’s mental health services receive just 6% of the adult mental health budget and have seen cuts of £50 million over the past five years. This is a real opportunity for third sector organisations to support young people in taking the lead in guiding policy – a model of working previously unaddressed.

By giving young people the opportunity to input into the direction of policy, organisations can weave these views into the processes of change: working with policymakers, drafting responses, submitting political briefings.

What are the benefits of involving young people in the policy process?

Young people are best placed to understand the issues that affect their mental wellbeing: bullying, exam stress, relationships, issues of unemployment and most recently, the impact of technology and social media. Toxic websites glorifying anorexia and self-harm are impacting upon the mental wellbeing of young people in a way previously unknown. By growing up in an era of instant communication, young people are experts at advising on the impact of the digital world. Including young people in the policy process allows this insight to shape the way in which policy responses are drafted and communicated.

What role can young people play in shaping policy?

There are a variety of ways that young people can influence policy work:

  • By providing input into the formation, implementation and evaluation of government policy and strategy. This might be through direct engagement with key bodies - or indirectly, by working with organisations like the Mental Health Foundation.
  • By ensuring that publications and policy documents are written in youth-friendly language and made readily available for young people to access - using social media, collaborating with schools, or engaging with youth clubs.
  • As public communicators: writing articles and blogs on current news stories, providing input into internal strategy meetings and attending policy-focused events as expert ambassadors for young people.

How have young people already been in involved in policy work?

In elections and referendums:
In Parliament:

How can we in the third sector help involve young people in shaping policy?

  • By providing support, training and supervision that will enable personal development.
  • Committing time to engaging them fully by explaining what the output of their involvement will lead to – for example: the development of a booklet, acknowledgement in a report or the creation of a new section of the website.
  • By supporting young people in building up networks with their peers, so they can discuss ideas and raise a collective voice.

Now is the time for young people to have their voices heard. We, as organisations, can support and promote the interests of the youth population by providing them with a platform for influence in the policy-making process.

Let’s work together, with young people, and see the change that is needed in the mental health sector.