Youth work and mental health: A worker's perspective
Guest blogger Amy Dunn talks about the importance of mental health in youth work.
“1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder” (Source: Young Minds).
That’s a scary statistic – especially when you’ve grown up as one of them, and are now ‘on the other side’ of the system, as a youth worker. It means if I’m working with a group of 20, statistically two members of the group have some kind of mental health problem.
I have a degree in Youth & Community Development Studies – something I’m incredibly proud of. It’s the result of three years of hard work, and attending lectures covering all the issues you might expect a youth worker to know about. We covered drugs, alcohol, sexual health and youth crime more times than I can remember – we certainly covered them all several times over the course of those three years. We started to become experts in a way.
We spent less than half a term covering young people’s mental health, and that was only in our first year. By the time we’d graduated it had been buried by a lot of other information, and was never re-visited.
Now, I’m not saying we should have spent all three years looking at mental health, but it certainly wasn’t considered prevalent enough as an issue to warrant re-visiting – and this isn’t really a promising thought for those young people who need us to know about mental health and support them in their experiences.
Mental health as a topic is often taboo in youth work – considered a subject which is simply too difficult to approach with young people, or even one which presents such a minefield of possible responses from young people that it’s simply not worth the effort. This is especially the case when those young people have other issues in their lives, ones that seem far more important and therefore more worthy of our skills as youth workers.
But the way I’ve always seen it is that poor or risky mental health is almost always affecting those young people with other issues, so surely if we’re helping them with those issues we should help them with their mental health too? Surely mental health is the ‘groundwork issue’ – the one we should always look at as the first step to helping those young people find the resilience and self-confidence they’ll almost certainly need to get through whatever other issues they’re experiencing?
Youth work is a career which is, by nature, varied and challenging – this is part of the reason I chose it in the first place. But, in the eight years I’ve been doing youth work, mental health has definitely become my ‘specialist cause’. I’m passionate about increasing the links between youth work and mental health. My mission in life seems to have become breaking down the stigma and taboo of mental health, and making sure every youth worker out there is confident enough to have an open-doors and open-ears policy on the subject.
Youth workers are, by nature, a dynamic and resourceful bunch of people; so who would be better to encourage young people to explore the issue of mental health?
This is why, when I launched my own youth work resources website last month, I decided our first major resource pack should be about Mental Health. My small team and I worked flat-out to create and launch a full resource pack by World Mental Health Day (Wednesday 10th October), and we managed it (just!). The resource pack includes 5 interactive sessions that aim to get young people talking about mental health and exploring it as a subject area, along with Fact Sheets and a list of Useful Contacts for those wishing to know more or locate relevant support. You can download the Resource Pack here.
Hopefully, it’s just one small step towards making youth workers more aware of, and more comfortable talking about, young peoples’ mental health.
If the pack changes just one young persons’ attitude to Mental Health, it’s a success in my eyes.
For more information on young people's mental health visit our website.