Blog | Let’s talk about mental health

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Student mental health nurse and Deputy UK Youth Commissioner, Jay Thompson, shares his advice on being honest and open when talking to young people about mental health.

While we often talk about mental health in the context of illness, it’s equally important to consider what good mental health can look like – in Scouts, leaders and our communities. Good mental health is often the ability to be resilient, being able to fend off whatever life throws at you and having the ability to cope with the difficult things that happen to us all. Scouting can help, of course.

Activities such as pioneering might not seem like they would be linked to mental wellbeing, but what you’re actually teaching young people is how to work as part of a team, to rely upon others and to work collectively to overcome challenges. In time, those skills translate to good communication and inter-personal skills, which form a package of skills. As well as offering these amazing activities, it’s also really important that we start looking at mental health and wellbeing in the same way we do physical health and wellbeing and actually talk about it.

Show your support

We wouldn’t argue that someone with a broken leg was weak for seeking help, but mental health problems are often seen as less severe. In turn, that means that someone struggling with their mental health has to be incredibly brave to disclose how they’re feeling and may not try to seek help at all.

The more we talk about mental health issues, the more normalized it becomes to admit that you’re struggling. Millions of people struggle with the same issues each year – you’d be getting plenty of help and support if you were on crutches, so why should we sympathise less with someone struggling with anxiety?

It’s estimated that one in 10 young people under the age of 16 suffers with a mental health condition – that’s at least two in a Troop of 20. It’s possible that Scouts could spend years in the Movement without discussing how they’re feeling with anyone, but actually, as a leader, you might be in a really good position to provide support.

Don’t be formal

In my experience, your Scouts will talk to you when it’s convenient for them rather than for you. Whether it’s around a busy campfire or on the way to the kitchen laden down with plates, it’s important not to discourage them or formalise the chat by offering them a set time to come back and talk to you – it can be a spurof- the moment decision for a young person to make a disclosure.

The important thing is that you’re open and available to chat and you’re willing and ready to listen. You don’t have to be a mental health expert. It’s totally fine to say that you’re not sure what to do if a Scout approaches you with a problem and you shouldn’t feel like you have to promise that you can make everything OK. Quite often you’ll find that young people just want to be properly heard. As their first port of call, it’s up to you to listen and advise who might be able to offer appropriate support – it could be a teacher or a young person’s parents or GP.

Raise awareness

It’s really important that dialogues around mental wellbeing happen at every level in Scouts. I’d like to see activities being integrated with the Programme and being ‘upgraded’ at every level. As a Movement with half a million members and over 100,000 leaders, we’re in a real position to make changes. I’m excited about our new partnership with Mind; think of the difference our A Million Hands project can make across the UK if we start up conversations in each and every Group!

A Million Hands is an on-going community impact project that tackles the four issues that matter most to our young people: mental health, water sanitation, those disabled by society and people living with dementia. 

Pick an issue, make a pledge and take action.

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