Warnings: This article contains themes of suicide and suicidal ideation
“One day I was walking home and decided to go a completely different way. I walked across the bridge. I just watched everything beneath me and I began to think a lot of dark thoughts. My thoughts were so intense.” TeenMentalHealthBlogs - Instagram
These were the words of one teenager we talked to when gathering stories from people with poor mental health. Although we were seeking adult voices to inform our work, the circumstances of this young woman provided an excellent insight into the different experiences of young people and gave Living Well the chance to explore their needs and ideas in much greater depth.
Over the past 10 years, Living Well sites have focused on creating new systems of mental health support for adults. Yet we know that one out of every five under-18s has struggled with their mental health from a young age and 70% of young people (1) have found it hard to find support - with a quarter of all young people considering taking their own lives (2).
The challenge for mental health services for children and young people isn’t a hidden problem, with millions of additional investment (3) already being made by the UK government.
The problem is deepening, with the pandemic leading to 80% of young people reporting their mental health worsened (4). Getting support right for young people is critical, with 50% of mental health problems being established by age 14 and 75% by age 24 (5). As our Storybook, “Waiting for Something Better”, revealed, many of our contributors’ mental health issues had stemmed from their childhood traumas.
At Living Well, we’ve always placed people’s stories at the heart of system transformation and - although we focus on adults’ lived experiences when we’re designing adult mental health services - it was through story collection that we first heard the voice of one young person who was experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Just as we explore with adults where they find their support, we asked our teenager where she sought help. She revealed the adults in her life were deeply important to her emotional wellbeing - her mum and school teacher - but it was a local charity’s peer-to-peer sessions that she found most beneficial.
As we dug deeper, we found she valued not just the charity’s support, but the opportunity to use her story to help others. From feeling like a burden - like for many young people (6) - these peer relationships allowed her “to feel like she wasn’t the only one going through these problems” and revealed the power her experiences could hold for other young people.
Social media gave her a way to explore her voice further and she began to share thoughts and experiences though her Instagram account. She posts as TeenMentalHealthBlogs and, from her bedroom in a small town in the UK, she now inspires and supports over 1,400 young people around the world.
“It is powerful to recognise the value of our experiences and what they teach us about our mental health. This can be of great value to ourselves and to other people. Of course, you will have low days, weeks or months, but these do not define you as a person.” TeenMentalHealthBlogs
Knowing the importance of good mental health from an early age, one of our pioneering sites saw the potential of taking Living Well’s principles and ideas into supporting children and young people.
And so, during 2019 and 2020, Living Well helped Tameside & Glossop to establish a collaborative for children’s and young people’s mental health and facilitate a process to create a new vision for a whole system approach to emotional and mental wellbeing for young people.
Working with Worth-It, a Community Interest Company supporting schools, colleges and organisations on mental health we ran online interactive workshops which brought together over 50 young people, carers, family members, practitioners, managers, clinicians and commissioners to explore together existing experiences of support, design new approaches and create a whole system vision.
At the heart was a fundamental shift in how mental health professionals understood the potential and capacity of young people to support one another - a shift driven by the experiences and voices of young people themselves and by the practitioners who work with them everyday.
Both recognised the central importance of peer relationships in young people’s emotional and mental wellbeing - how poor relationships can affect wellbeing and how peer support is the most relevant and effective way to improvement
“My friends because I feel like I can tell them anything. They won’t judge me, they’ll give me good advice on what to do.” a young person in Tameside & Glossop, describing their support system (7)
The new vision shaped a new set of system outcomes for children’s and young people’s emotional health and wellbeing:
Growing capacity to support themselves and each other
Having control of and able to mould support to you and your problem
Easy & inclusive access into supportive relationships
Gain awareness and understanding of emotional & mental wellbeing
This is a radical vision, challenging traditional mental health support and instead delivering support through and with young people.
Tameside & Glossop is in the process of commissioning this new approach locally with a collaborative approach of integrated working between diverse providers and a commitment to co-production between practitioners and with young people.
Moving towards such radical visions requires a new system context of collaboration to harness the power of insights and expertise of lived experience. When we create this context, we can shine a light on what is possible and start to create a preventative and sustainable system of support.
If you’d like to talk to us about Living Well, including developing a programme in your area, then please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d be delighted to start a conversation.
Living Well UK Programme is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK.