The power of youth: How we’re working with young people to shape the future of mental health
In early 2019, my colleague at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) had a conversation with a young woman who’d previously experienced a mental health crisis. She explained that when she’d been in a state of serious distress and had been directed to the emergency department, the medical response was very confronting and wasn’t tailored to her situation.
Once we started delving deeper into this area, we discovered this was a massive problem; that more and more people were turning up to emergency departments when experiencing mental health crises and receiving clinical responses when what they actually needed and wanted were relational responses.
The people we spoke to told us that hospitals are often a harmful experience that can actually exacerbate somebody’s mental health crisis or distress. There was a loud and clear desire for more non-medical opportunities
We thought: “Instead of responding to these insights with ‘Oh, we need more beds, more meds’, what would happen if we instead asked the community what they genuinely wanted and needed?”
And that’s how the Community Responders program was born.
Developed by TACSI and funded by the Fay Fuller Foundation, Community Responders is an ongoing program with the goal to discover what people in the South Australian community want and need when it comes to mental health.
The project kicked off in mid-2019 and, right away, we knew we wanted it to be led by young people. So, we put a call out to the Adelaide community for people aged between 18-24 who’d experienced a mental health crisis, and were in a position to do some work in this space. We also made a particular effort to reach young people who may not ordinarily put themselves forward for roles like this.
We recruited 14 passionate young people who fit that criteria and, over the next few months, we helped build their innovation capability until they had the skills and confidence needed to have safe and meaningful conversations within their communities.
We had WhatsApp groups. We all made wellbeing pledges to one another. We had lots of meaningful interactions to support them to lead conversations. We also went through a training program called eCPR (emotional CPR) that explores how to have insightful conversations with people who are experiencing distress.
The response from the young people was so powerful. There were some big players that we needed to talk to in the system, like executives in the health system, and we supported the young people to lead those conversations rather than us doing it on their behalf. Their tenacity to initiate and hold discussions about really difficult stuff was absolutely remarkable.
Over a period of four months, these young people spoke with over 80 people from the community with lived experience of mental ill health, as well as community groups, mental health professionals and decision makers. Then, we all came back together to do an ‘analysis jam’, where we spent time making sense of what we’d heard. We landed on five key insights:
Sticks & Stones
There was lots of debate about the language of mental ‘illness’. Some people said they found labels insufficient in capturing the complexity of their experiences, while others found their diagnoses reassuring. They told us that instead of a ‘one size fits all’ to language, they wanted permission to choose how to understand and respond to their own mental health.
Again and again, people told us they wanted easy, obvious and non-medical ways to connect and discover their capacities around mental health challenges and recovery, and permission to know it was safe to do so in daily life (not via one ‘special’ day or week a year).
Signs We Care
Our conversations with communities revealed that people wanted to help but didn’t know how to show up. This got us thinking about the role of symbols and signs to let people know about safe spaces and people. For example, what if we could highlight community ‘hot spots’ where it is culturally safe to be listened to?
Recovery is Relational
The people we talked to explained that mental health solutions need to go beyond the mainstream view of ‘self care’. They told us their definition of self care was ‘social’, and came from joining groups, becoming activists, sharing resources and purpose.
We Need Different Sorts of Education
Many people thought there was too much focus on symptoms, referral pathways and positivity, and not enough attention on addressing what could be the contributing and interrelationship of factors as to why people are suffering and in pain in the first place, and what we can learn to do to prevent, minimise shame, and be genuinely recovery focussed.
Out of these insights came two toolkits (and we’re working on a third) that contain resources to help communities design responses to mental health. You can find the toolkits here – I’d love to hear your feedback and how you might apply them.