How can youth work raise awareness of mental wellbeing among young people?

How the message “everybody has mental health”, coupled with strong youth work-informed activities and approaches, helps young people understand their own and others’ mental health.

Looking back over the second decade of the 21st century and the acceleration of mental health interest and activity in the UK, it is easy to forget that mental health and wellbeing have not always had such prominence.

Beginning in 2009 and spanning five years, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Mental Health Foundation funded four local youth work-based partnerships (in Brighton and Hove, Fermanagh, Sheffield and the London Borough of Newham), entitled the Right Here programme, to work collaboratively with young people to develop mental health and wellbeing-informed activities, both for themselves and for other young people.

The challenge as presented in 2009 was: how, through collaboration with young people, can mental health and wellbeing considerations, awareness, activities and knowledge be brought into the lives of young people?

How did Right Here tackle it?

One of the assumptions underpinning Right Here was that the work undertaken in collaboration with young people by the regional partnerships would be likely to achieve better mental health and wellbeing outcomes for young people. Informed by young people’s views and preferences, the services and activities created by the partnerships would be more accessible to other young people. A mental health and wellbeing focus was a condition of funding and was threaded through the Right Here programme at all levels. The local partnerships were all led by youth work organisations, so had freedom to work with young people around mental health and wellbeing in ways that differed from more medically based services.

Each partnership developed their own approaches and all delivered a mixture of activities, services and opportunities for young people that can be divided into four broad areas:

  • Activities to impart mental health and wellbeing-related knowledge to young people.
  • Activities to develop specific mental health or wellbeing-related skills or techniques.
  • Activities that were, in themselves, not mental health or wellbeing-specific, but which provided a means to impart either mental health and wellbeing knowledge or mental health support.
  • Activities where young people themselves raised awareness among other young people or were engaged in local or national activities to influence policy and practice within mental health and wellbeing-related services.

Some examples are outlined below:

Right Here Newham’s Wellbeing Champions was a 10-week accredited training programme for young people to develop their own understanding and ideas about mental wellbeing and to then take what they had learnt into schools.

Right Here Brighton and Hove’s ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was an anger management course for young people in which they learnt techniques for handling their anger. Participants were encouraged to learn from one another’s experiences and from the course facilitator who had counselling and youth work training.

The four projects employed a range of physical and creative activities – such as rock climbing, boxing, fishing, music production courses, and comedy and drama workshops and performances – to attract young people, build their confidence and wellbeing, and help them to support one another.

Right Here Brighton and Hove’s Mental Health Promotion volunteers met weekly to develop a range of mental health promotion activities, products and materials. Materials ranged from a leaflet, ‘What can I do when it comes to …A young person’s guide to looking after yourself’, to a mug distributed to GPs on which the young people had printed ‘The Right Here guide to being a youth friendly practice’. The group gave presentations and facilitated workshops locally for the NHS Locality Meeting for GPs, as well as nationally for the Royal College of GPs conference.

What did Right Here find out?

In their evaluation of Right Here, The Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR)

found that young people involved in Right Here activities had gained “an increased awareness and understanding about mental health and wellbeing in themselves and others. Young people spoke about the fact that they had grasped that ‘everybody has mental health’ and found the tools to think about their issues for the first time.”

Critical to this success was having highly experienced youth workers who could interpret and take forward the initiative’s ambitions and assimilate learning about mental health into their wider youth work practice. Through providing activities that were not directly badged as ‘mental health’ and that weren’t specifically aimed at young people with mental health difficulties, it was possible to engage with young people who may have ignored more targeted interventions.

Strong youth work-informed activities provided the carrier medium for mental health and wellbeing activity. With mental health, as with all things, we only know that our knowledge of something is lacking when we become aware of the existence of the thing of which we lack knowledge. This is true for young people. Many young people who participated in activities would not have identified themselves as experiencing mental health difficulties and would not be consciously accessing opportunities in an effort to improve their wellbeing.

As the young people participated in the Right Here projects voluntarily, each of the activities on offer had to strongly answer the question ‘what’s in it for me as a young person?’. This was equally true for those participating in co-production and delivery as it was for those taking part in the activities that resulted.

What can we learn from this?

The evaluation of Right Here suggests that much can be gained from the development of mental health and wellbeing practices in youth work and that this can reach groups of young people previously considered difficult to engage.

It is important to note that this is not about bolting clinical approaches onto youth work but more about supporting youth work organisations to realign their activities to maximise the possible mental health and wellbeing effects for young people.

Right Here’s guide, How to Promote Wellbeing in Youth Work Practice – one of four guides which summarise the learning from the programme – offers a range of tips for promoting wellbeing in youth work.

In addition, The Headsup Toolkit, produced by UK Youth, with Right Here’s input, sets out in detail what youth workers can do to bring mental health and wellbeing into their work.

When youth workers have confidence in their ability to make mental health and wellbeing a core component of their practice, they can tune into young people’s experiences, habits and outlook and offer support in a way that complements but differs from traditional medical interventions.

In a landscape where mental health provision for young people has experienced significant upheaval in many parts of England, at a time where there are commitments to improved offerings for young people’s mental health, the Right Here model presents a valuable contribution to rethinking the ways in which we bring the consideration of mental health and wellbeing into the lives of young people.

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