'If I need help...I need it now'

MAINTAINING a semblance of ‘normality’ in our day to day life during a pandemic can be difficult.

Although television adverts and social media bolster the idea that lockdown means relaxation, finding time to do the bits you’re always meaning to do and to reconnect with old friends over Zoom - for many, that simply isn’t the case.

The strain we each are experiencing inevitably takes a negative toll upon our mental well-being.

This stress is by no means a phenomenon only experienced by adults, however.

Now, during Children’s Mental Health Week, there is a growing acceptance that young people are feeling the pressure more and more with each passing day.

With the grim reality of isolated living; the stress of examinations; school closures; as well as the uncertainty of normality returning any time soon, poor mental health has become more and more prevalent in Northern Ireland.

According to a recent NI Youth Well-being Survey, one in eight young people in the province experience anxiety and depression.

This statistic is incredibly worrying, considering that this result is a staggering 25 per cent higher than across the other UK nations.

In response to the research, a Youth-led charter has been urging Stormont to wake up to the mental health ‘crisis’ looming large on the horizon.

The timing could not have been better, as Stormont has been undertaking consultation on how best to turn the tide of ailing mental wellbeing.

Over 1,700 young people across Northern Ireland and from within the province have approached the Executive with a blueprint of measures which aim to improve the mental health services.

At present, the waiting times, stigma and expense of getting help has been fervently criticised.

Focus groups and surveys with young people have been the backbone of the youth-led charter, and offer a disheartening insight into the obstacles which restrict beneficial help for those in need.

“I get £40 a week,” one of the focus group members said. “I could never afford counselling.”

“I won’t talk to someone I don’t trust,” another said in relation to poor support worker pairings.

Perhaps most chilling of all, however, is the powerful simplicity of a statement that one young person offered.

“It takes seconds to take your own life, so if I need and have asked for help, I need it now.”

The charter sets out five principles for mental health services, with the view to ensure support is efficient, beneficial, and inclusive to people and their needs.

These principles include making services affordable and without hidden costs, as well as keeping waiting times short to prevent escalation of issues at hand.

The charter hopes to ensure support spaces are established in safe and welcoming areas that build trust between specialists and young people.

This support is to be non discriminatory, regardless of background, ethnicity or gender.

Finally, the young people wish to implement education within schools that help improve coping strategies and skills to help themselves.

“I hope that the issues outlined by young people are dealt with urgently,” local campaigner Zahra Baz said.

“Reducing waiting times, reducing costs, guaranteeing safe, non-judgement environments, and providing thorough mental health education is what is needed from our mental health services.

“Currently, these elements are often not available, and that needs to change.”

Morgan Shuttleworth, a 16-year-old student, said that the mental health charters could be ‘extremely beneficial’ to young people.

“These measures could restore the confidence of young people in the counselling system and other mental health services.”

The Director of the National Children’s Bureau NI, Celine McStravick, spoke highly of the importance of the youth-led charter and its capabilities for meaningful reform.

“We know that having high-quality specialist services to turn to can help young people navigate a mental health crisis,” she said.

“But all too often they face barriers to support that mean in reality they have to cope alone.

“This charter, which chimes with the views of young people across the UK, provides a checklist for service providers and policymakers to make sure the mental health support they offer is sufficient to the needs of the young people who rely on them.

“We urgently need decision makers to adopt these principles to avert the mental health crisis facing Northern Ireland’s Young People.”

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