Why are we still failing our young people?


It’s May. It’s Green Ribbon Month.

The significance of the Green Ribbon is to get us talking about mental health, to start conversations. But do we know how to talk about it? What would we say? Do we have the words?

And would anyone want to listen?

We’ve been sporting our Green Ribbons this week at the Cork Life Centre and we’ve been creating a space to start conversations about the issues that affect our young people, and indeed those across Ireland.

Today we met Tony Bates founder and CEO of Headstrong and he didn’t talk at us or to us, but with us. We had the most sensible and hopeful and real conversation about mental health that I have heard or witnessed in a long time. And it is an issue close to our hearts; and we have read and followed the Dail debates around budget cuts!

Tony Bates

In 90 minutes, we were given the benefit of Tony’s lifetime of experience working with people experiencing mental distress. What we heard more than Tony’s voice was that of the young people that inform the work of Headstrong and of their Jigsaw projects. These youth voices are not hesitant or given a tokenistic platform-they are central and they are steeped in respected wisdom.

Tony credits young people with all the pivotal lessons he has learned about mental health, the most important of which is:

“We don’t want to be helped we want to be heard.”

Common sense can be a rare commodity but it shouldn’t take a genius to come to the conclusion that if you want to know what would help young people cope with problems and manage their mental health, you should ask them!

It was fascinating to hear Tony outline how positive a place of ignorance can be. One of the key tenets of our own ethos at the Cork Life Centre is a Philosophy of Ignorance: How can I deign to know what you need? How can I support you if I don’t know you? If I don’t understand you and your unique life circumstances and journey.

 Philosophy of Ignorance

The above ignorance is positive if it lends itself to listening, to building trust and relationships. This ignorance is intentional. The unintentional kind is far more damaging and arrogant. It is the arrogance of thinking you can ‘help’ or ‘fix’ young people. It is the exasperation Tony outlined that society can have in saying ‘If young people would only tell us what’s going on we’d fix it!”

Tony’s response to this kind of exasperation is calm, logical and inherently positive.

Firstly, he advises not to make the assumption that young people know how to tell us what’s wrong. The process needs to be a bit more active than saying we need to create spaces for these conversations. How do we respond when given the opportunity to really talk to young people and hear what they are saying? Too many people have become terrified to respond at all. Professionals are terrified of not being ‘qualified’ to talk to young people about their problems. Have we become so risk heightened and averse that we can’t reach out and help? For sure Ireland’s mental health system needs an overhaul, I doubt you’ll find many who disagree. But it seems there’s a bigger shift in thinking required than that. We can’t ‘fix’ the mental health system, we can’t ‘fix’ people whose distress and despair makes us uncomfortable.

Tony Bates advocates for accepting that the world is full of disruption and that it will continue to be.

So what can we control?

Our own response is the answer. Our own response should we be privileged enough that a young person finds the right words, or indeed any words to share the distress and considers us the right person to share it with.

What could be simpler than the two key pieces of wisdom Tony Bates shared with a rapt audience at the Cork Life Centre today:

We should first respond by thanking a young person for sharing their feelings. Because by doing so they are engaging us to support them and this is a skill.

Secondly, we can always say to a young person: ‘There is a very good reason for whatever you are feeling’ because truthfully there always is.

Tony’s talk today did not shy away from human suffering- he is not afraid to tell people they need to engage with their pain or that pain is normative in lots of situations life throws at us. But like the services of Jigsaw, Tony also focused on solutions and spent as much time speaking about what makes young people resilient as what might cause their struggles.

So the focus is not on eradicating human suffering, which is a part of the human condition. It is not on solving problems or removing obstacles for young people, but on identifying what puts them at an advantage in navigating problems, difficulties, stresses, and anxieties.

Years of research including the My World Survey by Headstrong points to three protective factors for youth mental health:

The ability to engage others with your problems. The skill of being able to seek support.

One good adult-not just a family member but any adult who knows you, believes in you, is available to you.

A recognition and development of your skills and talents, the nourishment of that one thing you are particularly good at.

A little goes a long way

What a beautifully simple and understated list! As Tony Bates commented ‘A very little can go a long way with the mental health of adolescents.’ What an immensely hopeful message. Tony Bates could not be more positive and hopeful about young people. Headstrong and Jigsaws philosophies are clear in their wonderful common sense and simplicity and lack of jargon and labelling. As an organisation working with young people we could relate to all that was said and are striving to put this into practice daily.

But why is this not obvious to our government, to policy makers and to all professionals on the ground working with children? It is not highly complex it is merely human.

If a little goes a long way why are we still falling down so badly in nurturing and protecting the mental health of our young people? Mental health does not exist in a vacuum to be cured-will do not see the mention of a diagnostic label or a prescription pad in the three protective factors. What you see in fact are closer to basic human and children’s rights- all four categories-survival rights, development rights, protection rights and participation rights.

We will have a unique opportunity to explore these issues tomorrow not just with Tanya Ward CEO of the Children’s Rights Alliance but Jillian Van Turnhout former senator and established Children’s Rights Champion. Join us at 11am to meet Tanya or 2pm for Jillian!

A huge thank you to Tony Bates who has earned a special place today in the hearts of all he met behind our red doors. Your words were inspiring and will fuel our work and commitment to communicating to young people that it’s OK not to be OK, and that it’s definitely OK to talk about it.

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