Perspective: Seeking Opportunities for Change

18/05/2016 15:18 | Updated 18 May 2016

As a young people's psychiatrist, working for Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust (BEH) for more than 15 years, I have spent a lot of time exploring how I and colleagues can best connect with young people ... on their own wavelength. From football to cooking, from drama to spoken word, the tools for engagement have been varied -- and, all have a common goal. Understanding and working out where a young person "is at".

And that's why I think our latest project has made a difference. It's a whole school approach to challenging mental health stigma and raising awareness about emotional wellbeing called Time 2 Talk. It was inspired by a tragic story of a local student who was stabbed to death, and the impact this had on his closest friends. Lost in their grief these young people totally disengaged from school and even family life. Seeking to help the school get them back on track we asked whether they would like to make a film as a tribute to their friend. The end result had a profound effect, not only on them, but also on me. It re-affirmed my own understanding of the impact of film and mentoring support, and how we need to be far more creative when working alongside those that are typically described as "hard to engage".

The film was eventually shown to a packed school auditorium in January 2012. There were a lot of tears. And the young people who made the film created space to process their grief, share understanding of their loss and slowly they began re-connecting with their own needs and aspirations.

Time 2 Talk was piloted in Haringey's Park View Secondary School with a wider team of partners coming on board, including creative media team deep: black, film makers Youth on Youth, and funding provided by Haringey's Public Health department. The project created a space where the topic of mental health felt safe, meaningful and approachable for the young people. Case studies of teenagers experiencing serious emotional distress were used as a narrative to inform student drama workshops. These workshops then developed into a piece of forum theatre, acted out by students to all school assemblies, with the play subsequently being translated into a film called 'The Boy Behind the Mask'.

This film now informs a framework for lesson plans for a mental health and emotional wellbeing module (within the PHSE curriculum) for all students in years 9 and 10. Students are invited to train as peer mentors so they can offer support to others within the school -- both one to one and in groups. There are now 46 peers who have been trained with a clear awareness and understanding of emotional wellbeing -- and this training is now embedded within the school culture, being offered and supervised by the school counselor.

There is a lot of talk about barriers to accessing support. We challenged those barriers, enabling students within one school the opportunity to understand more about their own mental health and the triggers for emotional distress so that they might find ways of supporting each other earlier and more effectively. Time 2 Talk is therefore about preventing young people from developing difficulties. But it's also about when these difficulties arise, skilling students to help their peers to access support and services earlier, preventing things from becoming too difficult or overwhelming. And it has been a success.

In fact, it has been so successful that my Trust and our partners have been awarded the Health Service Journal's Innovation in Mental Health Award. It's a great accolade, and one which couldn't have been achieved without us all working together. The judges were so impressed with the project that they "felt it should be rolled out across the country to other schools."

Beyond this award, for me, this project has been about reflecting on how I work as a young people's Psychiatrist. This project shows the impact of being able to get out of the clinic and work much more within different communities. But it also shows the need to be creative and innovative if we are to offer support to the whole community.

Mental health is everyone's business -- we need to ensure we create the environment for this to become a reality.