How can youth work reduce stigma and isolation felt by young people with mental health difficulties?

How creating mental health and wellbeing-informed projects for young people with and without mental health difficulties normalises mental health.

Mental health difficulties can be isolating and challenging at the best of times, but this can be even more pronounced for young people, as such difficulties remove social connections, create absence from education and work, and can co-exist with difficult or fraught relationships with family and carers.

Young people with mental health difficulties can find themselves outsiders, subject to stigma and to being ‘othered’ by their peers, as well as by adults and the services in their lives.

Right Here, the five-year programme instigated by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Mental Health Foundation, sought to bring together youth work practice and mental health knowledge as a way of generating new ways of delivering mental health and wellbeing services to young people. Part of this work was about bringing together young people who experienced mental health difficulties with those who did not.

One of the effects of austerity on young people’s mental health services in the NHS has been an ever-increasing pressure on those services, leading them to focus on those with the greatest need and to specialise in more focused clinical interventions. This has two main effects on the lives of young people with mental health difficulties: more of them will go without mental health services for longer; and those who do receive services will be unlikely to do so in an environment in which they can mix with many other young people.

As a programme funding four partnerships across the country – in Brighton and Hove, Fermanagh, the London Borough of Newham, and Sheffield – one of Right Here’s intentions was to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing for young people and to build their confidence and resilience. Taking a youth work-led approach, each local partnership worked with young people to find ways of providing services to other young people that would raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing, as well as provide activities that would support young people in dealing with the challenges of poor mental health. 

What did Right Here find out?

The Right Here programme was youth work-led, rather than medically led. In essence, it added mental health knowledge, guidance and emphasis to existing youth work practice and ideas. The partnerships provided young people with opportunities to be involved in a range of appealing activities, which had value in themselves. Activities ranged from physical and creative activities like rock climbing, fishing, drama, music production courses and comedy workshops, to research and young people speaking directly to other young people about mental health.

The activities brought together young people who had experienced mental health difficulties with those who had not, and the young people learnt from and supported each other. This approach allowed Right Here partnerships to reach young people who might otherwise have stayed away from events targeted specifically at young people with mental health difficulties, while also allowing young people who had experienced mental health difficulties to meet with other young people in a safe and informed space. This made it possible for young people to form relationships with their peers who may have had different life experiences and with adults who could help to shape their ideas and their understanding of mental health and wellbeing.

Consequently, as the evaluators of Right Here, the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) found that “young people participating in Right Here projects came away more aware of their mental health and wellbeing, had more confidence in their ability to recognise others’ emotions, and had a better understanding of how their own behaviour affected others. The breakthrough moment for many young people emerged from an understanding that ‘everybody has mental health’ and that there is nothing unusual in sometimes having problems.” This partially resulted from extended social contact between young people with and without mental health difficulties during shared activities.

In this manner, the Right Here programme was able to maximise the outcomes for young people who have mental health difficulties and for those who currently do not.

What can we conclude?

While there will always be a need for specialist services for young people with defined mental health needs, by their nature these services cannot strongly respond to the growing call for early intervention, prevention, and a focus on the wellbeing of young people.

Creating projects that are mental health and wellbeing-informed, and that extend a meaningful offer to young people both with and without mental health difficulties, gives rise to situations in which mental health can be removed from the category of ‘other’ and placed into the context of the everyday life of a young person. Some may argue that this approach is ‘broad but shallow’ when compared with traditional Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), reaching a range of young people but failing to provide specific support to those most in need.

However, while CAMHS services offer solutions to problems, a more open, relationship and activity-based youth work approach allows young people to focus on potential and possibility.

In short, this approach can, at a local level, build structures that reach young people who cannot be reached by CAMHS and provide a way for young people who are currently within a CAMHS remit to achieve things that might not have been possible otherwise. Through normalising young people’s experiences of mental health difficulties by involving them with others who are lucky enough not to have had similar experiences, Right Here’s local partnerships contributed to building a cohort of young people with positive ideas about mental health and wellbeing.

Read more about Right Here and making youth work led mental health for young people a reality.