Aaron Mansfield, Health and Wellbeing Project Manager Young People, considers the challenges that still need to be overcome in order to effectively address the mental health and wellbeing needs of young people.
I am delighted to have joined RSPH as the new Health and Wellbeing Manager for Young People.
Prior to joining RSPH, I coordinated a project called HealthTec. We worked with Health Education England to develop a simulation suite within an inner-city secondary school in a deprived area of Birmingham, which was used to provide young people with a practical and direct insight into the full range of careers available within health and care.
The work delivered by the project ranged from training students to act as paramedics and respond to a simulated train crash as part of a creative writing project for an English assignment, to staging scenarios such as a worldwide disease epidemic for a Geography group looking at movement across borders. Meanwhile, having a desk facing a full-size ambulance on one wall and a replica set of mortuary cupboards on another never did stop seeming bizarre!
One of the most interesting aspects of working with young people of all ages, ability levels and backgrounds was their experience and understanding of mental health. If it came up in a group discussion, it was very rare for the conversation to go beyond words like ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘bipolar’. It was even rarer for somebody to suggest ideas such as ‘wellbeing’, ‘resilience’ or ‘happiness’.
What made this limited understanding even more worrying was the high number of cases in which mental health and emotional wellbeing were clearly barriers to a young person’s development and wellbeing. This was often compounded by a reluctance on the part of parents to acknowledge and accept this explanation – again, often caused by a honest and genuine but ultimately limited view of mental health.
Schools are often busy, frantic, and stretched places. Teachers work incredibly long days to guide young people towards their predicted grades, and ensure that they are making sufficient academic progress and prepare them for their exams. It is sometimes easy to see the quiet and reserved student at the back of the room as a blessing in a noisy class, rather than someone perhaps needing help.
It was therefore really refreshing to see the Department of Education’s recent report on Developing a Preventative Approach to Mental Health. Organisations like RSPH need to be doing all they can to make it as easy as possible for schools to talk about mental health with their young people. Whether this is developing ready-to-deliver lesson plans and assemblies or training students to act as Mental Health Champions, we need to do more than our fair share of the work.
We also need to be conscious that whilst peers and teachers can have a huge impact on a young person, their key influence will almost always be the people they live with. At parents’ evenings or celebration events, it was all too common to see traits like a lack of confidence shared and reinforced by both a young person and their parent. A truly preventative approach needs to provide family members with the information and support they need to break this cycle together.
Working with young people is always fascinating and exciting: they have the potential and ability to do absolutely anything, which can be both frustrating and amazing in equal measure for a teacher.
Our task is to give schools the tools they need to make sure that mental health and emotional wellbeing don’t act as barriers to prevent this potential from being realised.
Through RSPH’s Young Health Movement (YHM), we are looking at new opportunities to provide young people with the skills and knowledge to overcome these barriers. The YHM bursary programme will be available from September and will help train over 200 new Young Health Champions to support these efforts. If you would like to find out more about YHM and the bursary scheme, please contact me.