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; and
· Mental health and wellbeing training for all teachers, school support workers and youth workers to enable effective delivery of the programme.
The representative then provided the Committee with an up-to-date breakdown of the current work stream:
· July 2020 – representative from the BYF had met with Executive working group on Mental Wellbeing, Resilience and Suicide prevention to present the EITR report;
· September 2020 – representative from BYF had met with Minister Carál Ní Chuilín from DfC to discuss how the DfC could support the implementation of the recommendations in the EITR. A reply was received in October 2020, stating that the DfC were 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. They advised that they were currently scheduling a follow up meeting to explore how this could be progressed;
· November 2020 – following a question from Mr. Chris Lyttle MLA to the Minister of Education the officials had responded by acknowledging that there were many other areas to be addressed, including the Elephant in the Room recommendations, and that these would be considered in subsequent Framework implementation plans;
· The EITR group had been working to raise its publicity and its work had been referenced in a variety of pieces of similar work; and
· Creation of ‘Heads Up’ mental health advocacy toolkit.
The proposed next steps were then detailed, as follows:
· The EITR group planned to invite the current Mental Health Champion to the Executive, Professor Siobhan O’Neill, to meet. They advised that Professor O’Neill had attended the presentation to the Executive Working Group on Mental Wellbeing, Resilience and Suicide Prevention in July and was keen to discuss the EITR report further;
· To source potential funding streams to further the work of EITR;
· To Launch ‘Heads Up’ toolkit;
· To convene a follow up meeting with the DfC regarding the development of an app to be designed specifically for young people in relation to mental health issues;
· To continue to raise the voices of young people in relation to their mental health and to campaign for mental health services that would benefit young people; and
· To build relationships with agencies and organisations who could help advocate for better mental health services for young people.
The Chairperson thanked the Youth Forum representatives for their informative presentation.
Discussion ensued in regard to how capacity could be built to support children and young people and to ensure that they could easily access the services. The importance of the various agencies adopting a multi-agency, joined up approach was discussed at length and it was noted that, whilst this approach had already been adopted, it needed to be further developed to ensure that long-term strategies were brought forward which would have meaningful outcomes and affect change at a local level.
The representatives also referred to the New Decade, New Approach Agreement and the subsequent commitment to deliver the Mental Health Action Plan. It was noted that this Plan contained a number of commitments to review and develop services and to put measures in place to ensure long term strategic change that would be brought about by the development and implementation of the 10 year Mental Health Strategy.
Both the DoE and PHA highlighted that additional funding was available and multi-agency work was already progressing. They specifically referred to the CAMHS teams (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) and the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) Approach.
A Member highlighted the emphasis that many schools placed on academic achievement and stated that it was important that schools started to focus less on this and more on children and young people’s physical and mental health. He also called for an expansion in the mental health services available to primary school students and for the services currently available at post-primary level to be made available to younger pupils.
Following a query, the Neighbourhood Services Manager confirmed that the Council’s Community Plan – the Belfast Agenda - linked in with the desired outcomes of the mental health action plan and 10 year strategy and that the Council was committed to working together with communities and other statutory agencies to review and help deliver the required services at a local level.
Several 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.
An external representative from the DoE reiterated that funding was available and that much work had already commenced to prepare an initial implemental plan to progress the actions outlined in the Mental Health Action Plan. The representative noted that the EITR Research was very beneficial and stated that the DoE was keen to use the research and to link with the other statutory agencies to progress the delivery of this vital work.
As with the RSE Campaign, given the length of discussion and volume of information presented by the various organisations, it was agreed that the representatives from the statutory organisations would each forward a summary of their current procedures and a synopsis of the points raised for circulation to the Elected Members and the Belfast Youth Forum Members.