We live in a constantly changing world, one of ever-increasing complexity. Navigating the systems necessary to succeed in this modern landscape is not straightforward. Nonetheless, this is something all young people must do in order to thrive and grow. Through exercising our rights, we can access the correct information and receive necessary support to resolve the issues we face. We also live in a time where social injustice is rife. Vulnerable people are unsupported, communities' needs are not met, and many young people feel disillusioned. It is only through knowledge of our rights that we can identify, and challenge, such social injustice.
One area where our rights can make a profound difference is within mental health services. I, like many others, first used mental health services in my teens. At this time I had no knowledge of my rights within healthcare. Consequently when I was unhappy with my treatment I said nothing. The staff treating me broke mental healthcare guidelines (guidelines that I didn't even know existed). Beyond this, I was never involved in discussions about my treatment; my opinions or consent were not considered. All the decisions were made about me, but without me. I wanted to speak up and negotiate a better outcome, but I didn't know how. My fear of retaliation from staff, that I would be seen as 'the difficult patient' (and the effect this might have on my experience), forced my silence. I put up with the things I felt were wrong. I knew no better. How would I know? We don't get taught about our rights and the information is not readily available.
Disempowered, I did as I was told until it became too much. My lack of voice was making me worse. I disengaged with therapy and left services. I will never really know the effect this had on my recovery. All I do know is that if things had been different, I would have remained in services and fully engaged with professional support.
Months later, when I began volunteering in mental health campaigns, I learnt all the things that I wish I had known before. I should have been given a voice. I had a right to confidentiality, to consent, to make complaints, to an advocate, to a second opinion, to see a different doctor. There are rights and guidelines to protect people in my situation, but they are wasted if we don't know them.
When I found out how different things could have been, I was devastated. I felt let down by the services that were supposed to be helping me. Above everything, I was angry. It felt as though my lack of knowledge had been taken advantage of. I received substandard care because I, like most other people entering services for the first time, didn't know my rights.
I have since seen how understanding our rights can greatly improve the experience of young people in mental health services. Being informed and involved in decisions about your care is not only incredibly empowering - it also can lead to better outcomes. You are more likely to engage in the services when you feel listened to. Being able to make a complaint without fear means that young people don't have to put up with bad occurrences, but can instead influence change in services for the better. Understanding what your rights are allows you to have the best possible experience.
I have described just a handful of the benefits of using your rights within one specific situation. In reality there are infinite scenarios in which a young person may need to exercise their rights, with multifarious benefits of them doing so. If understanding our rights allows us to get the best out of a situation, then by extension all young people deserve to know their rights in order to achieve the best possible outcomes throughout their lives.
A new project launching today, Make Our Rights Reality, will equip young people with the tools and knowledge to exercise their rights. My personal experience shows how this can greatly improve the quality of life of the individual, however I also embrace this project for its potential long-term impact. A generation of young people who understand their rights and responsibilities is a generation who are empowered to hold services to account and create social change, as a sustainable social movement.
Make Our Rights Reality (MORR) is a national project led by Youth Access, the advice and counselling network. MORR will:
- Educate young people about their rights and responsibilities and how to tackle their everyday problems
- Support young people to work collectively in their communities to address social injustice
- Establish a national campaign network of young people speaking up for their rights
- Build a national youth rights movement in the UK
Follow MORR on twitter @MORR_RIGHTS