This was written by Ger Brady a Community and Youth Work student in NUI Maynooth who was on placement with the Dublin North North East Recovery College at the start of 2018 and was so dedicated and energised by her placement volunteered her time to give support to the Mental Health Champions programme. Ger your next student placement in youth work they will be lucky to have you!
Day One: It’s with a mixture of nervousness and excitement that I pull up outside the Emmaus Centre in Swords, County Dublin for the Erasmus + Mental Health Champions (MHC) Train the Trainer course run in conjunction with Dublin North North East Recovery College. Excitement to learn more about supporting youth mental health, a subject I am passionately interested in and nervousness about learning and working with 32 youth workers and youth educators from across Europe.
The aim of MHC is to support young people through the training of professionals working with young people by giving them tools to learn and understand mental health awareness from a practical standpoint. To be able to not only support the mental wellbeing of the young people they work with, but also to equip those young people with the knowledge and skills they need to manage difficulties that may arise within their peer groups.
Emmaus is only 15 minutes from Dublin city centre, but feels in the middle of the countryside and with some butterflies in my stomach I head in. However on meeting the facilitation team of Aaron, Tessa, Adele and Liz their warmth and a glimpse of the action-packed timetable they have put together for us, puts me more at ease.
The first session involves an easy ‘getting to know you’, with fun and energetic ice-breakers. There is a real mix of professionals working with young people on the course from Greece, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Scotland, Austria, Denmark and closer to home. There is a wealth of experience in the room with everyone very engaged and any nerves are quickly expelled. We are going to be very busy over the next four days, so it’s off to bed early to be able to get the most out of this amazing learning opportunity.
Day Two: An intensive day where we started with an introduction to the course content. It’s apparent that an enormous amount of thought has gone into this based on a hugely successful pilot course that the facilitators ran with three Dublin based youth groups last year again in conjunction with the DNNRC. The teaching style is non-formal and highly participatory, based on the belief that everyone in the group has something to bring to the learning. All they ask is that you come to each session with curiosity, a willingness to learn and to have fun, I can answer yes to all three and really feel like I am in the right place.
First off, we explored the continuum or spectrum of mental health and had a challenging look at some prejudices that we personally may have in relation to certain types of mental distress and how socially acceptable or not they may be. Breaking into smaller groups we explored myths, truths and untruths about mental ill-health. We then had a detailed look at the practicalities of setting up a youth group. We discussed the environment, the skills and the risks that need to be considered before embarking on a MHC course for young people.
We then looked at the concept of recovery in relation to overcoming mental health distress, what exactly that means and how it looks in practice. Aaron facilitated these discussions amazingly and gave everyone the opportunity to speak, gently encouraging those who we hadn’t heard from previously. By creating a safe space and allowing time for personal reflection, people are empowered to contribute. We had a creative session to draw our personal ‘Life River’ in visual format, with everyone fully engaged in the process and there was great energy and positivity in the room.
The shared passion that the participants have for youth mental health is palpable and this is creating strong bonds with the group really coming together and eager to learn as much as we can.
This evening many of the participants shared resources, tools and ideas for working with young people. It’s great to see how different countries are tackling issues and a brilliant way to learn new skills to bring back to our own youth group. A very full day from 8.00 am to 10.30 pm, but as opposed to feeling tired I’m invigorated and empowered with new skills. Bring on tomorrow!
Day Three: Another very full and informative day. The practice of self-care is hugely important when working in what can often be challenging circumstances and there is a large emphasis on mindfulness and meditation throughout the course. Mindfulness works at allowing you to be in the moment and be fully present, important tools for working with young people, but I would argue that they are vital for fully living your life.
Following this we broke into groups to look at specific mental illness diagnosis. We had an in-depth look at the experience of a person living with a diagnosis and also ways in which you could support a young person experiencing these difficulties. We looked at internet sites that provide helpful, but also unhelpful information. From this a list will be complied and circulated after the training. With so many young people accessing the net for information it is important that we can direct them towards beneficial sites and away from ones that should be avoided.
The afternoon sessions were really interesting and focused on the many forms of communication and the importance of emotional intelligence in being able to pick up emotions that are not being verbally communicated. This is vital when working with young people to be able to read signs of distress from someone who may not have the ability to verbalise it.
We had a lengthy session on the concept of One Good Adult (OGA) and the skills required to be that OGA. Evidence from studies shows that the presence of OGA in a young person’s life has a positive influence on their mental health. My World Survey (Dooley & Fitzpatrick, 2012), shows that 70% of young people growing up in Ireland today said they receive high or very high support from OGA. These young people in turn are more connected to others, more self-confident, future looking and better able to cope with difficulties than those young people who reported that they did not have the support of OGA.
This evening Aaron guided us through a session of Zin Yoga. A restorative practice of self-care with deep relaxation at the end. So much so that I heard a couple of snores, you know who you are!! We rounded off the day with presentations from all the organisations involved in the training. It was a great opportunity to see the projects and programmes that other countries across Europe are providing for young people.
Today it really feels like the group is coming together. Nerves and shyness are out of the way, and everyone is so much more at ease. The intensity of the schedule means that we are all a bit tired, but no less engaged and eager to participate.
Day Four: I can’t believe that I haven’t mentioned the food yet! We are being so well looked after by the staff here at Emmaus that I fear it is not only my knowledge that will have grown, but also my waistline! We started off the day again with a walking mindfulness exercise, a brilliant way to connect to yourself and a reminder to myself that I need to integrate more of this into my daily routine. It is a practice and therefore involves some working on to really see the powerful impact in can have on your life.
In the morning sessions, we explored the stigma around mental ill-health and the impact that has on a person suffering from mental distress. We also looked at gender in specific regard to mental health and expectations and stereotypes based on one’s sex. We played a Pictionary game where we drew generalized stereotypes in groups, which the other groups then had to guess. What was interesting from this exercise was the conversations that ensued and the fact that the stereotypes were typical across the different countries in Europe, represented on the Erasmus + programme. One of the best parts of the design of the programme is the splitting up into smaller groups where you get a chance to talk to everyone and not just who you are seated beside. The assumption of the facilitators that everyone in the room has something to offer to the conversation has been completely borne out and I for one am a convert to this informal, experiential type learning as opposed to the more traditional top down style.
You know what they say about ‘all work and no play’ so in each Erasmus + programme there is time allotted for a cultural activity. For this we all went into Dublinia to explore Ireland’s Viking past. Having never been before I found it really interesting and for one day the Vikings were still in Ireland as one of the Danish crew bore an uncanny resemblance to a wax figure!! It was great to be able to introduce my European friends to my hometown, which included a pint of the black stuff and a delicious meal.
I had a wonderful day. With a topic as heavy as mental health I had not anticipated the amount of laughs I would have on this course. I have met some of the kindest, intuitive, emotionally intelligent people and downright funniest people over the last four days and have no doubts that they are inspirational in the lives of the young people they work with.
Day Five:It’s hard to believe that this is our last day. It has been a short, but very intense five days and I feel utterly privileged to have been part of it. I feel quite emotional that I will be leaving the cocoon of learning to head back to reality (minus the three courses meals!) but I have learned so much and met people who I can genuinely say are now friends.
Our morning mindfulness takes on a more reflective nature as I look back over this incredible experience. Our morning session is all about being able to have the conversation with a young person around mental health difficulties and there is not a person in the room who doesn’t feel more prepared for that. The group has come a long way in a short time and Tessa has to introduce the talking pen! Only the person holding the pen can talk such is the demand to contribute to the conversation. A couple of the youngest members of the group give us a powerful role play showing insight and maturity way above their years.
The afternoon is mostly taken up with evaluation and feedback and preparations for Culture Night. Each country is given a table to showcase their national dishes and traditions. First up is a rousing rendition of Strip the Willow from the Scottish gang, getting us all involved. What we lack in dancing talent, we make up for in sheer enthusiasm! Our four fabulous facilitators have now become four leaping leprechauns! A fabulous night was had by all and let’s just say that what happened in Swords, stays in Swords!
Day Six:Just time for a quick breakfast before the bus arrives at 8.30 am to bring our European friends to the airport. Walking out the door I feel different to the person that walked in. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve talked, I’ve listened, but most of all I’ve learned. I have been in incredible company and this is an experience that will stay with me for a long time to come.
In relation to rolling out the MHC training to young people in the participating European organisations, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. For many of the youth workers and youth educators gathered, this was the first time they had participated in specific training around facilitating mental health discussions and there is a real appetite to bring this new learning to young people in their respective countries. Through the group discussions, role plays, games, tasks and feedback people learned very practical skills and techniques to create safe spaces for young people to discuss concerns or difficulties around their own, or a peer’s mental health. Learning to recognise their own strengths and weaknesses, places these workers in a better position to be the ‘One Good Adult’ that has the potential to make a world of difference in a young person’s life. The learnings around co-production and co-operation taught us about the need for all citizens to share their knowledge in productive ways. Through this sharing, there is the capacity to provide appropriate interventions and a real ability to be able to inform public policy. Fundamentally there was a sense from the participants that as opposed to waiting for the change, there is an energy, passion and knowledge to be that change.