Risk, resilience and young people online

A few weeks ago i attended two conferences on how young people use the internet and the risks and opportunities involved. Both were fantastic experiences and i not only enjoyed attending the conferences and hearing from young people and practitioners around the country but also presenting to such fantastic audiences.

Munch, Poke, Ping

The first conference, “Munch Poke Ping”, was hosted by Stephen Carrick-Davies and was something i had been looking forward to for a long time given that the subject matter was so intertwined with my own experiences and work. Originally i had asked Stephen, who i met through Katie Bacon of Online Youth Outreach, if i could attend. This led to me not only attending but also presenting at the conference about my own experiences of using the internet as a therapeutic tool, the positive power of peer support and the work i am doing currently with YoungMinds and MyHealthLondon.

The conference was attended by professionals working with children and young people from a variety of perspectives including teachers, support workers, youth workers, psychologists and others and the line up on the stage was just as varied as the audience itself.

Among the line up were speakers from PRUs including pupils, staff and a headteacher as well as Online Youth Outreach, Blackberry and Dr.Richard Graham who works with young people with technology addictions.

Although i am well versed in public speaking this event, for me, was a little daunting as it was my first foray into speaking as a professional and not just a “young person” or “service user” (the labels normally attributed to me). However as soon as i had a microphone in front of me i was fine! (Something that i imagine would shock those who went to school with me where i was known for being quiet and anything but happy about standing up in front of large groups of people).

After a somewhat dark session in the morning looking at grooming i spoke about the positive effect of the internet and how i believe it has helped me and helped me help others over the years. I did this through talking about my own experiences of mental illness and using and running support groups and forums online. I wanted to stress that not everything that happens on the internet is bad or untoward and that actually thousands of young people are helped every day by the peer support they receive online.

I have noticed that professionals, when considering young people and their internet use (especially “vulnerable” young people), find it very hard to see beyond one thing. Risk.

This means that projects are often slowed down or more likely not even considered, I hear a lot of fear and dismissal of service user involvement and participation let alone the concept of peer support within this.

My answer? Yes there are risks involved in going online, and yes some people are more “vulnerable” than others, however there is risk inherent in all areas of life. Risk is a fact of life and people will do “risky” things regardless, you may not be able to stop it but imagine the effect it would have if you could at least help manage and minimise it.

The ban and block  culture and our fear of the worst case scenario paralyses us and certainly does not move us forward.

 

And while bigger organisations are pondering all the worst case scenarios of having even, say, a pre-moderated, closed forum for service users, service users like me have been doing this for a decade now.

And i understand the fear that exists, believe me. I understand the fear of lawsuits and Daily Mail fodder but please bear in mind it can be done, and done well.

It’s not about trying to making risk obsolete, it’s about building resilience, educating young people and providing support; just check out what the Cybermentors do.

There are safeguarding measures that you can put in place, so many i wouldn’t know where to start..and do you know what? A lot of them are common sense! Like not giving out personal details online, just like you shouldn’t give them to a stranger in the street.

I’m sure most young people would tell you too that we don’t want to be wrapped in cotton wool and actually we need to learn by experience.

Personally i doubt exactly where i would be today without the peer support i have and currently still get online, i don’t imagine it would be a good place.

It has been a part of my life for around ten years now including before, during and after more conventional psychological help. Yes the help that i was receiving wasn’t from someone qualified in any paper-based way but i was fully aware of that going in. Not only that but the support was free and, unlike most mental health services, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A stark contrast to most service provision which operate on a strictly 9-5 basis (with a few exceptions of course). No two year waiting lists in sight either..

I don’t blame the services. I understand the pressure they are under, it was pretty bad ten years ago and with the brutal cuts to the NHS things aren’t looking too good here on the ground right now.

Peer support should be encouraged, as a grass roots movement of sorts it already wields immense power and touches and enhances the lives of thousands. Just look at the hit counts on websites that are already doing it. And look at how successful ChildLine and Beat Bullying for great examples of how to reach out online.

It was amazing to be given a platform to speak about something that is so important to me both personally and professionally. It is the reason that with YoungMinds and MyHealthLondon i am developing an app and website to help young people who need support.

I met some incredibly interesting people throughout the day and the conversation continued both at the conference and on twitter (#mpp #munchpokeping).

The day after was a conference run by YoungMinds and ACAMH titled “Young people in the internet wilderness: a ticking time bomb?”,  my next post will be coming shortly!

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APPG on Children’s Health at the House of Lords

On the 22nd of October i had a very exclusive ticket to the House of Lords to speak and give evidence at an All Party Parliamentary Group for Children. This was apparently the second meeting of the group although the first for me and the question asked of us was “are children and young people getting the opportunities they want” in terms of good health and was looking at access to healthcare.

We heard from:

Baroness Massey who was kind enough to chair the event.

Dr. Chris Hanvey, the chief executive of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Caroline Noakes, MP and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image who told us about her work and area of interests which include self esteem, body image and mental health. It was great to hear from an MP so involved in raising awareness of these issues which affect so many young people.

Professor Helen Cross, the Prince of Wales chair of Childhood Epilepsy and three young people from the charity Young Epilepsy. I was so impressed by the young people who spoke about their experiences of other peoples ignorance and the discrimination and lack of understanding they had faced in receiving help for their conditions.

Young people and staff from West London Mental Health Trust’s Wells Unit who spoke openly and honestly about their experiences of both the justice and mental health systems and what they think would help young people stay mentally healthy, especially vulnerable young people who had become caught up in gangs.

We also heard from a representative at ChildLine who talked us through some really eye opening statistics. I was amazed to hear that since it was founded in 1986 ChildLine has counselled over 2.9 million children.

They spoke about the 69% increase in calls about self harm and 39% increase about suicide and told us that depression and mental health concerns feature in the top 5 concerns for 16 and 17 year olds calling them.

I was the last young person to speak at the APPG, this felt like a really big responsibility, especially after hearing from the other young people at the event but i wanted to make sure that i got across how young people who use mental health services often feel.

I also pointed out that, as i was the last person to speak, it showed that there continue to be wide ranging and very damaging problems within children and young people’s healthcare regardless of whether this is mental or physical health. I pointed out that this was an issue rampant across services and young people frequently felt dismissed, ignored and patronised by services and professionals.

I also spoke about the work i had done in the past and my experiences of services which is what led me to get involved in YoungMinds in the first place. I spoke about the work i do now with YoungMinds and NHS London and the app that we are developing specifically for young people in London and the State of Mind manifesto.

The group wrapped up the meeting with a quick Q&A session, we would have loved to have speak longer but we had to finish at 6:30. I must admit to being exhausted by the end of the day but it was definitely an incredibly worthwhile experience and i am glad that i was able to speak at such a high level about mental health and young people. I just hope that what i said can in some way help to make a difference, if only in opening people’s eyes to some of the experiences of young people.