From that listening project, the issues that were brought out as affecting young people were around mental health and wellbeing in school. Young people felt that there wasn’t enough support, or that they weren’t reached quickly enough with mental health support because waiting lists were too long.
Following that project, Healthwatch asked Katrina and Alex to run a project based in four schools, with 18 young people. They held a four-week engagement program that supported each young person individually before taking them through community organising training to become young listeners.
The schools were asked to nominate up to four young people.
“We didn’t want their high flying students,” explained Katrina. “We wanted students that perhaps were non-attenders, students who were suffering with mental health illnesses themselves.”
The main training took place over a weekend residential trip, where the young people learned about safeguarding when listening in their schools, as well as completing a full one-day Introduction to Community Organising course. The young people also explored themes of power whilst out on a hike, where they carried out a ‘prisoners and guards’ role play exercise, provoking the group to question and think about ideas of autonomy and authority.
After the training weekend, the young people took their new skills and knowledge back to their schools to set up listening rooms to listen to their peers. Setting this up at first required some negotiation for some of the young listeners.
Initially, when the young listeners took their ideas back to their school, the teachers wanted them to conduct the project differently to how they had planned. This discouraged the students, who had put a lot of effort into their action plan. With some prompting from their community organiser and mentor, Katrina, the young listeners went back to the teachers and explained their plan in more detail, explaining what they wanted to do. This time, the teachers listened and agreed to support the young listeners’ plan.
Three weeks into the project, the school was so on board with the project that it provided bean bags for the listening room, at the request of the young listeners, who felt that a more comfortable the room would make it easier for students to open up.
Another school Katrina supported during the project set up a listening room straight away and waited for people to come and talk to their young listeners, but this approach didn’t work. So they took some time to reflect and decided to reach out into the school, going out to where young people were to listen to them.
One student who previously had poor attendance and her own mental health issues saw an improvement in her attendance after becoming a young listener and even won the Young Achiever award from Community First.