Young people can be champions of change in mental health care

New initiatives are helping young people enter the conversation – but there’s still stigma around accessing services

‘If you don’t deal with the mental health of young people, the cost to the community is disastrous, never mind the public purse,” says Jacqui Dyer, chair of Black Thrive and vice-chair of the England Mental Health Task Force. Black Thrive, based in Lambeth, south London, aims to tackle the systemic issues behind poor mental health outcomes in black communities.

“We’re working with the local authority, schools and mental health [workers] to improve services – and the voice of children and young people will be central,” says Dyer. “Part of how mental health services have to change is to listen to what communities are saying in order to respond better when young black people show up in a crisis or require early intervention.”

Giving children and young people a louder voice in the running of mental health services is also the aim of a project called Amplified, run by the charity YoungMinds and funded by NHS England. It promotes their participation in the design of NHS child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs).

“There’s a massive stigma around accessing services, especially in some ethnic minority communities,” says Laurie Oliva, YoungMinds’ head of participation. “For some black young men, the first time they get access is in the justice system. If that’s the case, we’re failing them.”

Oliva argues that the participation of children and young people as champions of change is “absolutely key” to transforming the system as a whole.

“It’s about really changing the way we think and act around children’s mental health,” says Oliva. “Even when you do get help, you can be bounced around the system telling your story over and over and over to different people. By the time you’ve found the right place, you’ve had a poor experience that will more than likely exacerbate the very problem that you’re trying to deal with.”

George Hodgson, 21, is a youth adviser for Amplified, giving talks to professionals and some of the hundreds of young people the project reaches out to every year. Towards the end of secondary school, Hodgson experimented with ecstasy and started to have panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. Then he discovered that the waiting time for Camhs was 40 weeks and his three-year battle to recover his mental health began.

“Professionals sometimes think they know best and in one sense that’s true, because they’ve done the training – but young people know what works for them,” Hodgson says.

“When I went to Camhs I was told what treatment I would get without being asked what I thought, which I found a bit strange. It was a case of like it or lump it.”

He says he loves his adviser role and that the stigma around mental illness is starting to evaporate – something he has noticed in talking to other young people.

“I’m making a difference just as a young person standing in front of 250 year 11 students talking about it,” he says.

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