Mental health: the students who helped themselves when help was too slow coming

Last year, Molly Robinson, 15, was struggling to cope with the symptoms caused by an undiagnosed health condition. The unexplained pain, plus the worry about what was wrong, caused her to feel increasingly anxious and distressed. She plucked up the courage to seek help. And what happened? “I was put on a waiting list.” The Guardian reports.

Frustrated by the waiting times for mental health services, Robinson talked to some friends she had met while local people were protesting to save beds at their cottage hospital. They decided to form a group, We Will, to campaign for more understanding and skilled support for young people suffering mental ill health.

In a community centre on the Ewanrigg estate in Maryport one Thursday afternoon, seven well-informed young people explain why they have worked so hard over the past year to improve their own and their community’s skills in supporting people with mental health problems.

“People don’t want to stare it in the face – the lack of resources to help this generation,” says 17-year-old Billy Robinson. He isn’t just relying on anecdotal evidence: the We Will group has done its research. Over a year ago, the government issued a green paper proposing to put £300m into extra mental health provision in schools – but the new support envisaged will not be available until an unspecified time in the 2020s. Meanwhile, while children’s suicide rates are up 67% since 2010, a quarter of those referred for help are denied treatment. Despite the need, according to the Care Quality Commission, 23% of child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) are rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement”.

The group of teens knew they would need help to plan and organise their campaign, so a year ago they approached Kate Whitmarsh, development worker at the community group Ewanrigg Big Local, which has a mandate to grow grassroots initiatives proposed by anyone resident in the area.

Whitmarsh has encouraged the We Will teenagers to get trained up in the skills required to offer their peer group emotional support without feeling scared or overwhelmed, themselves. She has mentored them as they embarked on lobbying their MP, making their own eloquent film, persuading Maryport businesses to display mental health awareness posters, doing media interviews – and finally, plucking up the courage to approach their schools’ senior leadership teams to take action.

At Cockermouth school the next morning, Tom Roberts, 18, explains how – championed by school governor Alan Rankin, who works in human resources at Sellafield, – three of them met their school leaders armed with almost 20 ideas. The students hoped the school top brass might agree to a few of their suggestions. “But they said, ‘If you want, you can do all of them’,” Roberts recalls with a laugh. “Then we had to make it happen!”

One of the results of the students’ campaign is that 80 pupils and staff at Cockermouth school have completed a mental health first aid course. Participants are trained to listen and acknowledge that someone is in emotional pain, but – crucially for teenagers who may feel panicked – they are helped to grasp that they are not personally responsible for fixing anyone’s problems.

Read more about the We Will group, what they’ve achieved and what they want for the future of their school and the town.  Mental health: the students who helped themselves when help was too slow coming

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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