Monday 4 February 2019

GUEST POST by Laura & Lucy from 'Debating Mental Health' For Children and Young People's Mental Health Week

With children and young people’s mental health high on the political and media agenda and with “listening to young people” billed as key to “transforming services”, Laura, the Director of Debating Mental Health and Lucy, one of the young people Debating Mental Health works with, reflect on what “listening to young” people should look like in relation to young people’s mental health and across the mental health sector.

Debating Mental Health works to empower young people who have experience of mental health support needs by equipping them with the skills, knowledge and experience they need to speak out on what matters to them in mental health and to take action, where that is desired.

Laura: As someone who works with young people, helping them to use their voice, I am often asked how others can engage young people and how they can talk to them, especially about topics related to mental health. For a while, I used to say “just ask some questions, like you would if you were starting a conversation with anyone else”, but now, I have to say, I have changed my mind slightly and I think, going forward, it will be “listen” and when I say “listen”, I mean really listen.

These days, life can be so hectic, that our interactions with young people (indeed, all people) are often brief and distracted. We ask questions, but don’t really listen to the answers, because we’re thinking about what to cook for dinner, getting a piece of homework done, or where Aunty Ethel is going to sleep when she comes to visit, but if we slow down and really listen-especially when talking about mental health-wonderful things can happen. When we slow down and listen to young people we show them that we care, we show them that we want to take the time to support them and we show them that we believe in them. We also build the relationships that are essential if we want to change the way we do things in the children and young people’s mental health sector. If we really want to change services, so that they truly meet the needs of young people, then we must learn to listen in the way that empowers young people and supports them to take a lead and deliver change within the mental health sector. But, additional to this, we must learn to understand when listening is all that is wanted of us, that sometimes, we should listen for the sake of listening, rather than to offer our opinions or solutions to young people, who often just need to feel heard and understood, so that they can find their own solutions.

Lucy: As a young person with extensive experience of mental health services and both positive and negative experiences with mental health professionals, I know the huge value of effective listening. Listening is so much more than having an open ear, although that is very important; the secret is engagement. If you listen effectively, you are engaging with the person or people speaking and you are engaging with what is being said. If you do this, you will feel compelled to respond; respectfully and compassionately. 

Talking about mental health can take a lot of courage. It can feel quite exposing opening up about personal difficulties, so when we listen effectively by engaging, a person can feel validated and supported, as opposed to vulnerable and alone. Engagement then encourages further engagement and honesty - it opens doors - and creates almost a snowball of trust and progress! 

Young people can be empowered through reciprocative engagement across many areas of their lives; schools, extra-curricular activities and healthcare. Ultimately, our engagement with young people should build young people up. It should encourage self-belief, perseverance and confidence. And it is not an insurmountable task. A few words of encouragement to a young person feeling destined to failure in their maths class can transform their attitude. This engagement can lead a young person to fight the fear of failure, apply themselves and achieve, such that they have the confidence and determination to overcome other barriers. This can similarly be applied to anxiety, suicidality, depression and any other feelings young people may be experiencing. There can be huge value in a few words.

Importantly, however, engagement must be assertive. In a therapeutic healthcare setting, it is important to engage with young people in a way that equips them to be able to lean upon their own qualities and skills in hard times. Mental health services can be a significant support to young people, but their reactivity can lessen young people’s capacity to feel able to support themselves. Through engagement, young people should be able to feel strong; able to stand on their own two feet, whilst knowing they can reach out for support and will be properly listened to. 

The lack of engagement within mental health services is an ongoing and pressing issue. Mental health services deal with life and death much like physical health services do. Yet this reality is often softened, in part due to the inability of scans and blood tests to confirm difficulties. But this is exactly why engagement is so essential. It is the vehicle to recovery from mental health difficulties, because it facilitates accurate diagnosis and the implementation of a correct treatment plan.

When I consider the impact a few people in the mental health world have had on my life, I feel excited! Because I now know, after all these years, what it means to be properly listened to, and I know the potential of engagement to transform young people's lives. Through engaging with Laura at Debating Mental Health, including taking part in a debating workshop and attending and presenting at the Global Summit for Mental Health 2018, I have hugely grown in confidence and rather than feeling like a vulnerable patient because of my difficulties, I feel like a strong young woman with valuable experience that can be used to help bring about change for the better. 

Similarly, I look back fondly on my time being supported by an CAMHS outreach worker, who took the time to fuss my dog and get to know my sarcastic sense of humour. These things are not trivial; in fact, quite the contrary. My dog is my world and she knew that - she showed interested in me as a person beyond my difficulties - and for that reason I felt more able to trust her and open up. Through taking time to get to know my sarcastic sense of humour, she would be able to know when the “I’m fine”s meant quite the opposite. I think this shows that engagement can take varied forms, but that it doesn’t have to take a lot to make a real difference to a young person’s life.

Let it be remembered, though, that young people themselves are making waves in the mental health world. As experts by experience, we must be taken seriously. We are the ‘now’ generation. We have stories, we have felt pain, we have sought help. Yet we are determined, we are strong, we have huge hearts and we want to make a difference. 
Let this be an open invitation to engage with your ‘now’ generation!

Twitter: @DebatingMH
Facebook click here.