Six years ago I was working in a mental health clinic with back-to-back referrals for young offenders. But nobody came. I had to find a better way of delivering mental health services to this group and I knew who would be able to help me: it was the young people themselves. I needed to spend time in a community and to listen to what young people wanted. I needed their help. So, I founded MAC-UK with a group of young men I met on a North London Estate outside a fish and chips shop.
Figures show that one in three young people who offend have an unmet mental health need at the time of offence. If someone is wielding a knife, it's highly unlikely that anyone will ask if they are depressed. This could be exactly what they are feeling, however, it's just that it's presented in an atypical way. Young gang members tell us that they find it hard to access traditional services: some of them won't even be registered with a GP and others simply won't feel safe to go to the clinic because it's in the wrong postcode. Then of course there's the stigma. Seeking mental health support is challenging for anyone at the best of times, never mind when you're in a peer group that watches your every move and where being seen as strong is your code for survival.
Every time a young person gets stabbed in the UK it costs £1.2million. Serious youth violence is a £4billion a year problem. This is not simply an issue for justice: this is a public mental health issue and it's a problem for us all.
Together with the young people from the fish and chip shop, we created a new grass roots model of mental health service delivery for excluded young people. We take mental health to the streets, wherever and whenever young people need the support. It can be on a bus, bench, stairwell or in a court waiting room. It also wraps around activities: young people lead their own activities and the mental health promotion and treatment goes around these. Invariably the activities involve job seeking, CVs, music, football and going to the gym. They also change on a weekly basis to guard against young people getting bored. The degree to which staff need to remain flexible is at a whole new level. If you are someone who likes to plan their days in advance then this model probably wouldn't be for you.
It's not just about the young person. It's also about changing the things around them. We can work with them all we like but if society isn't ready to accept them or an employer isn't ready to offer them a job, then we are sending them down a dead end road. At MAC-UK we are as focused on changing the young person for the system as we are about changing the system for the young person. Both are essential. Young people might, for example, co-deliver mental health training to the police or teach with us on doctoral clinical psychology programmes. This has a dual benefit: changing the way others think and also creating real life employment.
Changing systems involves influencing policy and changing the way in which services are commissioned. These are things which shape what we all do on the ground. We have done a lot of work with the Home Office in this regard. Our vision is that this new way of working becomes the status quo for all mental health service delivery for all young people in all communities across the world. To achieve this, everyone has to be on board. What is needed is an integrated multi-agency response with commitment at all levels from all services. Mental health then lies at the heart. All of our pilot sites are multiagency. It would be much easier from a governance perspective to run them on our own but then we wouldn't really be changing anything. We would just be filling a gap that statutory services should be providing. Piloting in this way proves others can do this and is essential for longer term service change.
Winning the Ben and Jerry's Join Our Core competition is such an honour. We entered as we thought it would be good experience but we never thought that we would win! It's credit to our young people and staff team. They are the ones who do the hard work and who give me energy to do things like this. Everything we do is a full team effort. It's an amazing feeling when it all comes together. We are still buzzing about it!
Our work is pretty tough and unglamorous day to day and we have to get excited about the little things, like a young person responding to a text message for the first time. It's so validating to be recognized by such a strong and socially aware brand. It gives us the assurance that we need we move forward on our journey. It reassures us that others share our vision and that it's possible.
Our dream would be to create a new ice cream flavour which is made and designed by disadvantaged young people from start to finish. How cool would that be? Young people need jobs. We would love to work with Ben & Jerry's on a project like this.