Newsletter #3 – Young People’s Mental Health

The third workshop of the University’s new Interdisciplinary Research Forum (IRF) took place online, on 28 May 2020.

The event, organised by Christine Jefferys, a doctoral candidate from the School of Social Professions, brought researchers and professionals from different disciplines and fields together to explore the possibility of creating new cross-disciplinary research partnerships.

The workshop presentations were delivered by Dr Olive McKeown and Dr Christopher Morriss-Roberts, Senior Lecturers in Health and Social Care at London Metropolitan University; Dr Ann Duke, Founder and Chief Executive of Kent charity, Walk Tall; and Dr Delia Baskerville from the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. A wider project team, including Senior Lecturers, Áine Woods, Dr Heather Allison and Dr Rossana Perez-del-Aguila, and doctoral candidates, Ama Agyeman and Mayra Gallardo-Andrade, provided encouragement and guidance throughout the planning process.

The Topic

"There is a crisis in mental health support for children and young people. Despite greater public awareness and extra government investment from 2015 to 2020, it remains far too difficult for young people and families to get the help they need."1

Young people’s mental health is a key societal issue located at the intersection of many disciplines and fields of enquiry, including education, youth studies, psychiatry, psychology and sociology. In the context of perceptions of a growing national crisis, the workshop posed important and timely questions about who is taking responsibility for the mental health of young people; how young people’s needs are understood; links between mental health, socio-economic and other systemic factors; and what could and should change.

The Presentations

The first presentation by Olive McKeown gave an overview of the contemporary national policy context. Olive spoke of how poor mental health among children and young people is often described as an epidemic and "escalating crisis" in public conversation and advised that the number of children seeking help from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in England has more than doubled in the past few years. She suggested that reliance on the partial collection of data in the formation of policy and service provision led to misconceptions about the nature and scope of mental illness, including a significant disparity between young people’s own perceptions of their mental health and official diagnoses of mental illness.

In "Alternative Education, a Practitioner’s Perspective", Ann Duke described her charity’s work with young people in an alternative education setting that integrates formal and informal education; therapy and therapeutic education; and the performing and creative arts. The majority of young people are referred to Walk Tall by mainstream schools as lacking confidence to the extent that they were ‘afraid’ to attend school. Ann spoke of their deep mental and emotional insecurity, dysfunctional attachment and "fear of, yet yearning for, love, acceptance and belonging". Walk Tall offered them tools for positive social engagement as the baseline for both academic achievement and fulfilling adult lives.

Chris Morriss-Roberts looked at young people’s mental health through the lens of embodiment in health, drawing on his work in the fields of amputation, lower limb pathology and body dysmorphia, and his experience as Senior Research Fellow at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Chris referred to the ‘mind-body split’ historically prevalent in branches of philosophy and psychology, contrasting this with a phenomenological approach that foregrounds the unique experience of living in a particular body and the significance of language in sharing experience. Chris highlighted the need to create activities that allow young people to understand and engage with research. He concluded by foregrounding the negative role of language binaries in the construction of ‘self-image’.

Delia Baskerville’s presentation focussed on changing the narrative in secondary schools for youth who truant. Delia began by explaining "a process theory of wagging" in which truancy arose from detachment that takes place in class and was replaced by the sense of belonging and mattering that young people found in a community of truanting peers. She discussed the way reintegration into school was sometimes inhibited by rigid school structures and the attribution of blame to young people and their families. The conditions where successful ‘re-inclusion’ might take place were explored in powerful filmed excerpts from Delia’s post-doctoral research into the use of ethno-drama, performed by young people, as a form of knowledge and power exchange within the wider communities they belong to.

Workshop Discussion

Discussion and written responses identified several areas for further exploration and research. These included how young people are positioned in the public narrative, for example Patricia O’Lynn from Queen’s University Belfast suggested looking at the ruling agenda of neo-liberalism which "categorizes certain young people in a way that moves them around or outside of the mainstream system". Teacher, Emma Barber, wrote, "I think we listen but we ourselves can feel powerless so we need to see a path...".

A prominent social justice theme in the discussion was the need to place young people at the heart of defining problems, setting agendas and designing support, by seeking and capturing their voice. Sandie Smith, the CEO of Healthwatch Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, noted that a frequent response when young people are asked what would help them is, ‘No-one has ever asked me that before.'

Other topics included social media as both a rich source of data and a problematic area in relation to giving young people a false sense of belonging; identifying how the political institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England have shaped policy discourse and practice differently; the enduring health impacts of early traumatic experiences; the value of professional support networks; the need for changes to teacher training; and the development of a shared cross-disciplinary language around young people’s mental health.

Research Partnerships

Research into ‘the language of coping’ in multi-disciplinary studies of young people is being taken forward in the University’s Student Staff Research Conference (July 2020). Further research projects will be facilitated through an online forum that continues the discussion.

1 Young Minds (2020) A new era for young people’s mental health