Breaking the Stigma: Mental health and the role of the youth work sector

Emily Carson, Masters student at the University of Edinburgh studying International Development, blogs about completing her Masters Dissertation, in partnership with YouthLink Scotland, on the topic of mental health and well-being, and the role of the youth work sector in improving those aspects of young people’s lives.

Six people, shown from the waist down, standing in a line.

As mental health and well-being have become increasingly important topics in the conversation about public health in Scotland, various sectors are involved in trying to increase the quality and availability of treatment and support for young people. The youth work sector in Scotland, which supports young people across the country in countless ways, has also made this a priority in the work they are doing.

During my research, I spent several months meeting with youth workers from a range of organisations to get their perspectives and experiences on what impact has been made for young people’s mental health and well-being, and what direction the sector should move forward in. Youth work has already aligned many of its goals to focus on improvement in these areas and has shown they are determined to help young people achieve positive mental health and well-being, while strengthening their own voice on these topics.

During my meetings with youth workers from a wide range of projects and programmes, it’s clear that these organisations have focused largely on providing young people with the knowledge and resources to prevent ill mental health, and to promote positive mental health and well-being. This has resulted in countless issue-based programmes, skill-building workshops, and direct support sessions for young people. Additionally, several organisations have run large-scale campaigns on everything from suicide prevention to de-stigmatisation, and have conducted large amounts of research, which can assist in creating new and improved programmes to help young people.

Youth work is unique in the way it helps young people, as it focusses on adapting it’s delivery to meet their evolving wants and needs. Because of this, youth work can constantly improve the way it addresses mental health and well-being for young people, adapting to new technologies, and changing programmes based on feedback from the young people they are working with. This adaptability, paired with the trusting relationships that are formed between young people and youth workers, has allowed youth work to provide a truly long-lasting impact to young people, which is vital in addressing mental health issues.

Organisations within the youth work sector have also shown a strong commitment to partnership working and working with other youth organisations, with the shared goal of supporting young people. This is extremely important when looking at complex issues like mental health, which are not so easily solved by just one organisation.

There are of course areas of improvement, which youth workers I spoke with mentioned as important. These include, continuing to adapt to new technologies,  improving inclusivity of services, as well as strengthening the coordination of different organisations working together on programmes. Additionally, there will need to be further research done within the sector on the impact of youth work to understand what is working well, and what can be made better so that more young people are getting the help they need.

From my research, it is clear to me that youth work has already been extremely significant in improving mental health and well-being for young people. Those I spoke with emphasised that mental health would continue to be a priority in their programmes in the future, and I believe that as youth work continuously adapts and improves, we will see strong improvements in the mental health of Scotland’s young people!