Members of the Youth Forum presented their “Elephant in the Room Campaign”, a report which explored young people’s awareness of mental health in Northern Ireland.
The Committee was advised that, in July 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child had recommended that the Northern Ireland Government invest heavily in children and young people’s mental health services. Consequently, in October 2016, the Belfast Youth Forum, alongside members from Northern Ireland Youth Forum and the Children’s Law Centre, had organised an event where over 100 young people had expressed their frustrations at the lack of mental health education and support services available in NI and called for the UN’s recommendation to be fully implemented by the NI Government.
In 2017 between members of Belfast Youth Forum and Northern Ireland Youth Forum a Youth Mental Health Committee had been established. The aim of the Mental Health Committee had been to explore issues connected to mental health and young people and to ensure that as many young people as possible had a meaningful say in shaping the future of mental health education and support services. This research would eventually take the form of the ‘Elephant in the Room’ report.
The Members noted that the aim was to establish what young people in NI thought and knew about mental health, in particular:
· Where young people got their information about mental health and how they rated it;
· Where young people liked to go to receive mental health information and support;
· How young people viewed mental health and how it impacted on their ability to speak about it;
· What actions they felt that the government should take to promote positive mental health and well-being in society.
The representative advised that a survey had been developed and 1,117 young people had responded, as well as responses from four focus groups across Northern Ireland. The focus groups had a total of 151 young people who had participated.
He reported that the findings of the research had then been broken down in to three broad themes, as follows:
· Stigma – young people indicated that there was a huge negative stigma attached to mental health which in turn led to a “culture of silence”, where young people were afraid to talk about mental health issues;
· Safe Spaces – 76% of survey respondents stated that young people were afraid to talk about mental health and there was a lack of safe spaces available to talk about it. The overall view from young people was that on-line was a good place to access mental health information, but there was issues with being able to separate fact from fiction. In addition, the young people had identified social media as having a negative impact; and
· Schools and Information – according to young people, the three most common places they would source information about mental health were on-line (59%), a family member (48%) and friends (45%). However, young people said the problem was that the quality of the information was inconsistent and it wasn’t always useful, for example, it was usually framed in a negative way.
As a result of the findings of the Elephant in the Room report, a number of recommendations had been made, these included:
· To support the creation of a youth-led, government backed mental health campaign, challenging the culture of silence and negative stigma;
· To work with young people to develop a new and positive language around mental health by creating an age appropriate ‘mental health dictionary’ which could be used as part of a mental health curriculum programme;
· To engage with young people to create and fund safe digital solutions to receive mental health information and support. These digital solutions should be designed by young people for young people;
· To create a compulsory curriculum programme for all schools and colleges on mental health and wellbeing that would help to raise awareness and challenge stigma and allows young people to access consistent mental health information. This curriculum programme should be long term and embedded in schools – as it was felt that one off workshops would not be effective.
· Mental health and wellbeing training for all teachers, school support workers and youth workers to enable effective delivery of the programme.
The representative reported that, since the last joint meeting between BYF and the People and Communities Committee, the Elephant in the Room (EITR) group had been extremely active. In July 2020, young people from the EITR group had appeared before the Executive Working Group on Mental Wellbeing, Resilience and Suicide Prevention to discuss mental health reform. The young people had engaged with Ministers and encouraged them to adopt the recommendations set out in the EITR report.
Following this, in September 2020, the EITR group had met with Minister Carál Ní Chuilín from the Department for Communities (DfC) to discuss how it could support the implementation of the recommendations in the EITR report. He advised that correspondence had recently been received advising that DfC was supportive of the requirement of an app for young people to access accurate and meaningful advice on mental health as part of a Mental Health Strategy which was agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. A follow up meeting was scheduled for October/November. The EITR group also stated that it intended to invite the current Mental Health Champion to the Executive, Professor Siobhan O’Neill, to meet the group. Professor O’Neill had been present at the presentation to Executive Working Group on Mental Wellbeing, Resilience and Suicide Prevention in July and was keen to discuss the EITR report further.
The representative advised that the Belfast Youth Forum, Northern Ireland Youth Forum and the Children’s Commissioners Youth Panel had also been working together to create a mental health advocacy toolkit for young people titled ‘Mind your head’, which would help and support young people to take action and to campaign on local mental health issues. He explained that it would aim to help young people organise a mental health campaign project in their community and provide them with a simple steps to follow when doing this. The toolkit was in its final draft stage and would be published in the near future. A presentation on this would be given by BYF at the next joint BYF / People and Communities Committee meeting.
A number of Members commended the Youth Forum in regard to the progress made with the EITR campaign and the establishment of the ‘Mind your Head’ toolkit and stated that they looked forward to hearing more about it at the next meeting.
Discussion ensued, during which a number of the members of the Youth Forum reflected on their own experiences in relation to mental health issues, particularly over the lockdown period, which had exacerbated mental health problems for many young people. It was noted that many had found the period to be extremely mentally challenging, either they or people that they knew, had struggled with issues such as isolation and loneliness, worries over their schoolwork and tense relationships with their families.
Discussion also ensued in respect of economic and social inequality making it difficult for people to access mental health services. It was further noted that the housing points system was hard to navigate, which presented challenges for young people. Concerning social media, the representatives agreed that whilst it was often perceived to have a negative impact on the mental health of young people it could also be used creatively to promote and share positive mental health campaigns.
The Members noted that, as the pandemic continued, it was important to understand what young people had been experiencing and to establish ways of supporting them to resume to normal life, or the ‘new normal’, over the coming months and years and to ensure that the necessary support mechanisms were available to them and that this was progressed within the inclusive growth concept.
The Members noted that they were keen to continue to work with the BYF to learn from them and to ensure that the necessary support was available.