Sophia Badhan, #iwill Ambassador and Mental Health Advocate, UK
Jonelle Awomoyi, #iwill Ambassador and Religion, Philosophy and Ethics Final-Year Student, University of Nottingham, UK
Youth social action refers to activities that young people do to make a positive difference to others or the environment. This kind of practical action can take place in a range of contexts and can refer to formal or informal activities, including volunteering, fundraising, campaigning or peer support (#iwill, 2013). In this article, we consider how peer support can be utilised in schools to help to address the need to provide for the personal development of learners in relation to mental health.
Mental health awareness has grown in recent years. Young people are increasingly participating in discussions around their mental health and wellbeing, and the Ofsted education inspection framework now covers the ‘personal development of learners’, which includes helping them to ‘know how to keep physically and mentally healthy’ (2019, p. 11). This is timely, given the number of young people seeking support from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) is on the rise (Local Government Association, 2020).
Youth social action initiatives involving programmes of collaboration between staff and students offer a way in which to address these issues. Results from the National Youth Social Action Surveys (#iwill, 2017) consistently show links between social action and higher levels of wellbeing, and a recent youth social action programme found that the young people involved reported reduced anxiety by over a fifth (Behavioural Insights Team, 2016). Of course, it is important to recognise that social action alone is not enough to address wellbeing and mental health concerns; it must sit alongside other approaches to ensure and support the health and welfare of students.
Social action and mental health
King Edward VI Handsworth School in Birmingham has taken an innovative approach to improving the wellbeing of both staff and students. As a sixth-form student here, I approached the school as I didn’t feel that there was enough wellbeing support in school when I was really struggling. I collaborated with the school’s pastoral team – a team of staff members in different key roles – to co-produce a series of informative workshops called ‘Self-Care Isn’t Selfish’, which are still running three years after their inception.
I was inspired by my former headteacher, who introduced the idea of ‘Wednesday Wellbeing’ and ‘Enrichment Afternoons’ to the school week. Every alternate Wednesday afternoon would be ‘off-timetable’ and in these sessions, the younger years would have the option of participating in art, drama and dance-related activities, while the older years could pursue one of the following options: 1) secure a volunteer placement outside of school for this allocated time; 2) free study time in the library; 3) free study time at home; 4) secure a work experience placement. It was because of this initiative that I put forward a proposal for the Self-Care Isn’t Selfish workshops as one of the options for Year 7s.
The aim of the workshops was to empower Year 7 students to prioritise their own self-care, promoting and standardising their knowledge of wellbeing. The workshops were delivered directly by sixth-form students, championing peer-led learning – research by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2018) shows that peer-to-peer tutoring can have a positive impact on learning, and whilst these peer-led workshops did not follow a tutoring approach, we felt some of the benefits of learning from peers would still be realised. The workshops took place in the afternoons, with each workshop comprising two 50-minute sessions with a break in between. The responsibility was rotated, so I delivered one workshop every two weeks.
The interactive sessions were made up of group activities, such as quizzes, and I would explain the aims and meanings at the start of each session. I drew on personal experience and explored different forms of self-care, ensuring that I included the not-so-glamorous ones, such as personal hygiene and establishing boundaries. The sessions were lively but I encouraged this, as I wanted an open feel to them. There were around 30 students per cohort (after six sessions, the students would rotate to another activity and I would have new students). There was a teacher responsible for supervising the sessions, who was available next door if there were any problems; this also meant that there was a supervised quiet space for anyone who may have been struggling.
I concluded each session by giving students time to write their comments and feedback on sticky notes and then put them in a box to remain anonymous. The broad questions put to the students were: ‘What have you learned?’, ‘What was good about today?’ and ‘What would you change about today?’. We also ran a SurveyMonkey and asked the current cohort to reflect on their experience. All participating students liked the fact that the workshops were run by other students. One young person reported that the workshops were ‘comfortable, and they were quite relaxed’, with another agreeing that the workshops were good because each session was ‘less like a lesson and more like a conversation’.
It was widely reported by participants that the activities embedded into the programme were ‘fun’, ‘interactive’, and ‘encourage[d] learning about this subject’. The session on ‘Managing stress’ was voted the most meaningful, followed closely by ‘Looking after yourself’ and ‘Mental health awareness and challenging stigma’. Since the pilot three years ago, the role of ‘wellbeing ambassador’ has been introduced into the senior prefect team, with each new wellbeing ambassador being trained on how to deliver the workshops by their predecessor.
Students can benefit from being given opportunities to learn and understand the importance of social action and the rewards that can be gained from creating positive change for their school and wider communities. While school councils are often seen as a means to involve young people in these wider discussions and develop a sense of agency, in reality they can be tokenistic, focusing on small details of school life such as lunch queues, while failing to highlight the broader importance of youth voice, participation, representation and the capacity that young people have to create meaningful initiatives.
Co-production between education professionals and students to create youth-led projects can be both practical and impactful – teaching staff do not have to take on a huge amount of extra work, while young people are given the opportunity to have their voice heard and to make a positive change within their own school communities. Specifically, we think that there is much value in working with students to tackle mental health and wellbeing issues in schools, and that doing this with young people ensures benefits for the entire school community. Youth social action, when done right, has the power to improve the trajectory of young people’s lives.
Behavioural Insights Team (2016) Evaluating youth social action – final report. Available at: www.bi.team/publications/evaluating-youth-social-action-final-report (accessed 28 September 2020).
Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018) Peer tutoring. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/peer-tutoring/#closeSignup (accessed 28 September 2020).
#iwill (2013) What is youth social action? Available at: www.iwill.org.uk/about-us/youth-social-action#what (accessed 28 September 2020).
#iwill (2017) National Youth Social Action Survey. Available at: www.iwill.org.uk/nysas-survey-2018 (accessed 28 September 2020).
Local Government Association (2020) CAMHS – facts and figures. Available at: www.local.gov.uk/about/campaigns/bright-futures/bright-futures-camhs/child-and-adolescent-mental-health-and (accessed 28 September 2020).
Ofsted (2019) The education inspection framework. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/801429/Education_inspection_framework.pdf (accessed 28 September 2020).