England’s Rights Advocates: We want transformational change to the mental health system!

We put human rights at the heart of everything we do. Read on to hear how!
We put human rights at the heart of everything we do. Read on to hear how!

This blog has been written by Ruby Waterworth, Policy & Campaigns Officer at Youth Access. The original blog post can be found on the Involve website.

Young people known as Rights Advocates are leading the Our Minds Our Future campaign.

Youth Access, the national membership organisation for community-based youth advice and counselling services, works with them to help them to be the best campaigners they can be. We provide exciting, meaningful, impactful opportunities to help grow and develop the movement. 

In 2020, we had exciting plans to engage young people to create a manifesto outlining the kind of transformational change they wanted to see in the mental health system. The coronavirus outbreak forced us back to the drawing board. The pandemic’s impact on the mental health of young people also gave further motivation to hear their voice. And thanks to some creative use of online tools and a committed group of young activists, we still produced a manifesto led by the voices of young people. Here’s how we did it.

Rights Advocates event 2019

Focus on rights

This manifesto aimed to set out what young people say mental health support should look like in England, in accordance with their human rights. It’s our human right to be supported when we’re struggling, and yet so many young people aren’t getting the help they need in a way that suits them. The manifesto aimed to hold decision makers accountable.

This is part of a much bigger programme of work led by Youth Access and partner organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each nation is creating its own youth-led piece of work – be that a manifesto, a charter or a report – to reflect the specific needs of their nation. 

Led by young people

At the heart of this drive has been training for Rights Advocates all over England to equip them with knowledge about their mental health rights and the tools to campaign for change in their local area. We’ve also supported the young people leading the campaign to advocate for change at a national level – for example at the Labour and Conservative Party conferencesin Parliament and at the annual conference for NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

The actions and achievements of our Rights Advocate community have shown time and time again that ‘losing control’ to the young people who understand and are affected by youth mental health support makes for the most inspired and impactful collaborations. Whether we call it ‘participation’, ‘co-production’ or something else, to us it meant starting the manifesto process with a blank page, and providing young people with the support and tools they needed to create their vision for transforming the mental health system, on their terms.

How did we do it?

We held Zoom sessions with a working group of six interested Rights Advocates to establish what the Our Minds Our Future manifesto should look like using Mural – our best online facilitation discovery of 2020! We focused on:

The group consulted five other Rights Advocates involved in the campaign on the draft principles for the manifesto. This process included sense-checking, joining up thinking, making sure nothing was missing, and identifying key audiences for the manifesto.

The Our Minds Our Future manifesto that resulted from this process is an impressive document, developed and written by young people, that outlines a mental health system that meets their rights and that is right for now, as well as the long-term. Demands cover a range of areas, from services made with and for young people, to whole-life support that extends beyond clinical settings.

The launch

We launched the manifesto in February 2021, alongside those of our partner organisations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Young people are now playing an integral role in ensuring the manifesto makes an impact. A group of our Rights Advocates have formed a Social Media Leaders team, learning and sharing new skills in digital campaigning and working together to produce engaging content for the campaign’s social media channels. Together they came up with numerous creative ideas, including Instagram graphics to share the campaign’s key demands, and a video.

Youth Access is now collecting personal stories of young people who have accessed services provided by our members to illustrate with real-life, best-practice examples as to why the points raised in the manifesto are so needed.

Key learnings

Youth participation works! Creating engaging, interactive sessions, in which young people can take a lead, is entirely possible. Facilitators need to trust the process, and know that what you put in will be rewarded many times over by the experience of witnessing the development and mutual support of the young people in the group. What has emerged is a truly youth-led piece of work.

Never forget safeguarding. This included a reminder of our group agreement of how we would engage with each other – outlining the importance of respect and looking out for each other – and using a Vevox feedback survey. All of this helps to create a safe, respect-filled and honest space. You can find lots more about online safeguarding and safe facilitation in our top tips for Zoom and remote support toolkit.

Working with a small group of young people over several sessions, with a clear timeline and purpose, helped create a community and friendships. This enabled young people to feel increasingly confident to voice their opinions, help each other, work together outside of sessions and, ultimately, take the lead. Breakout rooms on Zoom were such a useful tool, to give space for young people to discuss ideas without Youth Access supervision.

Timelines can’t always go to plan, as this pandemic year has taught us all. It’s so important to be flexible when working with young people. 

Consultation with more young people, co-facilitated by the working group, was key, to ensure a wider range of voices was being heard.

We’re so excited to share the manifesto with you and hope you will join us in spreading the word.