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Difficult Dialogue: 'COVID-19 & the Resilience of Young People'

We Stand Together’s latest Difficult Dialogue, titled ‘COVID-19 and Young People’s Resilience’, was held at the Bury Town Hall this week with many also present on Zoom. The event posed some key questions:

· How has the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on minoritised communities affected young people?

· How should we respond to the huge increase in mental health issues amongst young people?

· What can young people do to build their, and their peers', resilience going forward?

Jonny Wineberg, Director of Operations for We Stand Together, thanked Bury Council for hosting the event and welcomed attendees. He explained that as a youth worker and former Deputy Principal Youth officer for Manchester City Council, the agenda of youth mental health was one that was close to home.

Cllr Eamonn O’Brien, leader of Bury Council and GMCA Lead for young people introduced the topic. He suggested that the pandemic had exacerbated existing issues of youth mental health and wellbeing and shone a spotlight on issues that previously went unnoticed.

He explained that as an individual who experienced Britain’s previous recession in the 2008 as a young person, he can intimately identify with the plight of young people during this pandemic. During the last recession we saw a period where opportunity just paused for young people; they were deprived of financial and social support, youth services and economic opportunities. These same patterns are emerging once again.

Prior to the pandemic there was a substantial backlog in providing mental health support to youth which exponentially worsened due to the rapid decline in youth mental health resulting from the pandemic. This meant that young people cannot be provided the social and emotional support they urgently need. He cited a survey of 9–17 year olds conducted by Bury Council which suggests that 1 in 5 are unhappy with their mental health. There has also been a 120% increase in adolescent mental health referrals in the aftermath of the pandemic. He emphasised that there is strong evidence that youth mental health needs are not being met and health services are suffering under the pressure.

The pandemic also brought into sharp focus a digital divide. Many households lacked the physical hardware, software, or the physical space to cater to online mediums of education. Access to internet which many of us take for granted is unavailable to many households which means that some children were unable to learn.

Cllr. Eamonn also quoted the Be Well Survey conducted by GMCA which was co-created with young people and has a sample size of 40K plus, making it the largest youth mental health survey to date on the pandemic in the UK. 16% of respondents reported high levels of emotional distress in the survey. The survey also highlights that youth from minoritised groups suffer disproportionately with LGBTQ+ individuals affected most widely, 37% of black youth reporting discrimination and nearly 1 in 2 East Asians reporting racism.

The councillor suggested there were several actions that could be taken to address the situation and build resilience into the system and into young people. Firstly, the health service needs to process referrals ASAP and address needs as soon as they appear. Measures such as peer-to-peer support where it is appropriate and social prescribing can help take the pressure of mental health services. The second measure suggested was levelling up whereby funding needs to better directed. Lastly, he suggested that opportunities for young people need to be co-produced to better engage with young people and they need to be given a voice so they can be part of the solution.

The floor was opened for then discussion. A number of non-governmental initiatives were mentioned by participants that work in the youth mental health space, particularly the Duke of Edinburgh Award which has had a marked impact on improving youth mental health and confidence. It was mentioned that the Award has partnered locally in GM with the Proud Trust to widen diversity and inclusivity and improve access to support for minority groups.

The intersectionality of young people was also brought into light. Youth that belong in one or more protected classes are facing more severe circumstances. There is a need to improve representation in mental health services and hire diverse professionals that these young people can directly identify with. Participants also suggested that finding such role models may be difficult, however this could be due to possibility that systems and structures are not in place to make individuals from diverse backgrounds feel welcome.

Jonny Wineberg talked about #WeStandTogether’s cohesion work in Schools and Youth Groups that aims to shift perceptions of diversity, unite people and strengthen their ability to challenge discrimination as a collective.

It was also suggested that due to the isolating nature of online education, young people have missed out on instrumental periods of transitioning into adulthood which is supposed to be a formative period of their lives. This means they lack the skills to converse or socially engage. There is an urgent need for recovery planning and learner-led strategies that allows young people to take ownership and move on from the pandemic.

Jonny Wineberg thanked participants for attending the event and invited them to attend the #WeStandTogether Conference and Awards Dinner on 30th May which aims to celebrate local instances of cohesion work and would be an invaluable networking opportunity for local activists. Cllr. O’Brien recognised the work organisations were putting into addressing the youth mental health crisis and pledged to do his best to listen, act and respond.

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