Friends, Families and Travellers' Young Health Champions

Samson is a Project Coordinator for Friends, Families and Travellers. As part of the 2020 New Year’s Honours List, Samson was awarded a British Empire Medal for services to Young People and Families from the Gypsy and Traveller communities in Sussex. He explains how the Young Health Champions programme was taken on board by the charity and how it has helped improve the health and wellbeing of the young people who took part.

Reframing Cultural Norms

Friends, Families and Travellers is a national charity that works on behalf of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers based across the UK. To achieve this, we provide advice and consultancy, work on research and policy, deliver training and promote the health and wellbeing of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Sadly, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers continue to face the worst health outcomes of any ethnic group in the UK. Research has shown that life expectancy remains between 10-25 years lower than the national average. One study found that Gypsies and Travellers are nearly three times more likely to be anxious than others, and just over twice as likely to be depressed. Within the Irish Traveller Community, suicide is thought to account for 11% of all deaths.

Studies have also shown that outcomes around mental health are particularly poor amongst men from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The suicide rate for Traveller men is 6.6 times higher than for settled men. Within these communities, it is very rare to hear mental health discussed openly and is too often dismissed and hidden away as a case of 'bad nerves'. Mental health is often seen as relating to the severe end of the mental illness spectrum, rather than something we all manage on a daily basis.

As a prominent member of the Traveller community, it has been refreshing and helpful to see Tyson Fury talk so openly about the struggles he has faced with his mental health. We know that peer advice is something that carries a lot of weight in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, so it is vital that individuals like Tyson use their platform to shift perceptions.

This isn’t something, however, that can be left to high-profile figures. To reframe these cultural norms, we need to give as many people as possible in our communities, the knowledge and skills they need to understand their health, to feel comfortable talking about it and to know where to go if they need help. Crucially, we need to start this process as early in the life course as we possibly can.

Making Positive Lifestyle Changes

With all this in mind, when we came across the Level 2 Young Health Champions qualification, it seemed like the perfect fit for what we were trying to achieve.

Each of the Young Health Champions who took part in the training has made some kind of positive change to their lifestyle. One has given up smoking, following on from a group discussion of all the different ways in which it impacts upon your health. Another has cut down on the time they spend gaming in order to spend more time being physically active.

One Young Health Champion decided to stop consuming energy drinks, an idea which eventually turned into the campaign the Young Health Champions decided to run in their local area. They had identified that lots of young people on a Traveller site in Brighton were consuming large amounts of energy drinks and were unaware of the negative health impact of this. The impact has been dramatic – if you walk around that site now, it is very rare to see a can of Red Bull. It is much more likely that you’ll see lots of the fancy water bottles that they all seem to have bought!

An Example of a Supportive Culture

For the Young Health Champions, the impact of taking the qualification goes beyond improving their health and wellbeing. A lot of those who took part were outside of education when they started the course. One Young Health Champion has gone onto enroll at a local college, something I think he would have found very difficult to do before he built his confidence by taking the course.

We’re now in the process of training our second cohort for the qualification. It has been particularly rewarding to see one of the existing Young Health Champions volunteer to come back and help deliver the qualification to his peers. It shows just how much he values the programme and it is the perfect example of the supportive culture that we need to improve health outcomes for the communities we serve.