Tag Archives: young people

Wonder women and why we need them

For me, it was an eclectic yet potent combination of Wonder Woman, Kate Adie, Blue Peter’s Janet Ellis and Margot Fonteyn. Although I’ve yet to perform an arabesque while reporting from the frontline and deflecting bullets armed with nothing but golden bracelets and a roll of sticky backed plastic, I did at least pick some interesting female role models when I was growing up.

While it’s unfair to say that today’s girls and young women only dream of becoming reality tv stars, pop singers or footballers’ arm candy, it’s usually the case that the most successful women in the public eye tend to be very famous, very rich and very thin.

Campaigners at Pink Stinks are doing much to champion real, strong female role models who are “inspirational, important, ground-breaking and motivating” and today a new drive is launched to ensure that younger generations also have a range of professional female figures to look up to.

The business group everywoman has created the Modern Muse drive to inspire and engage the female business leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow by showcasing successful women in business. Although the majority are women in business and the private sector, there are – admirably – several powerful female role models from the public sector such as former Nurse of the Year Grace Vanterpool and Gill Evans, one of the country’s most senior policewomen.

Karen Gill, co-founder everywoman says: “Younger women today tend to have a strong focus on celebrity role models and we want them to be exposed to a much broader canvas, to women who have built businesses or are working in major organisations, whose lives are equally glamorous in very many ways.”

Modern Muse project aims to reach a million young women and girls over the next three years, to inspire and motivate them to look at business careers and entrepreneurship. The project will showcase stories of real women “whose experiences encompass ambition, passion, success and failure; showing that business is fulfilling and can also be fun and rewarding”. Many of the Muses will speak at community events and in schools, with the aim of nurturing female talent and encouraging women to start, own, run and grow companies.

Grace Vanterpool says: “Some of the role models that young women aspire to can be linked to their cultural or ethnic background and parental influences. Many young women in African Caribbean community aspire to become professional ‘divas’ and mothers – we seem to be less focused on getting involved in business. This may be due to the fact that there are not many successful business women who could become mentors to women from the African Caribbean community, and also to promote the benefits of setting and running a business.”

Vanterpool got involved with Modern Muse she wants her experience to inspire other women “to be the best that they can become”. She recalls, for example, that among the most patronising comments she’s had over the years are those that downplay her role. “Comments such as I am “only a nurse “, brought on by the perception that doctors who are predominantly male are usually the ones seen in senior leadership roles like mine.”

Metropolitan Police Detective Inspector Gill Evans says her motto is “it is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” She adds: “I feel passionate about inspiring the next generation of young women and girls to succeed whether it be in business or the public sector. I recall a number of times that I just needed to talk or run an idea past someone but couldn’t for fear of being seen as weak. I think that it is important that we continue to encourage young women and girls at every opportunity that they can reach their goals/aspiration regardless of their career choice.”

Modern Muse is launched with the publication of a book and a photographic exhibition by Mary McCartney. The book and exhibition focus on 100 inspirational female entrepreneurs and business women, personifying the ‘Modern Muse’.

How can you feel at home with bars on your windows?

Gemma Eadsforth

Gemma Eadsforth, 25, was in care from 15 to 18. Now a married mother of one, she lives in the North West and has been a LILAC (Leading Improvements for Looked After Children) assessor since January. LILAC is project funded by the Big Lottery Fund and hosted by the charity A National Voice which ensures looked-after children and young people are involved in decisions about their care and in the practices of the services that look after them. Here, Gemma explains how those who have experience of care assess how well services involve their looked after young people, deliver participation and LILAC standards of care.

The aims of LILAC (Leading Improvements for Looked After Children) are to make sure that young people are receiving the right care that they deserve and that they’re listened to by the professionals. We want to make sure that the service is listening to the young people’s views about what they want to change in the care system and be able to chase that up so the young people feel like what they say matters and the young people have a better experience.

I was in care from the age of 15 to 18. My experience was positive but some people have different experiences where they don’t feel like their voice is being heard.

I got involved in LILAC because I wanted to make sure that the young people who are coming into the care system or are already in the care system understand what their rights are and their voices are heard by their social workers or carers.

The simple things to me from my experience was when we wanted to have some sweets or chocolate we had to ask a member of staff to open the cupboard as they had locked it because we all used to eat it in one day, well not everyone but some people did. But if you were in your own home you wouldn’t have to ask and you wouldn’t have locks on cupboards. They say ‘treat it as your own home, make yourself at home’, but how can you when you have bars on your window or locks on doors? It made me feel like it was a secure unit, that it wasn’t home, that I wasn’t trusted and sometimes like it was a punishment for something I hadn’t done.

Some young people don’t like talking to their social workers or carers about what they want to change or anything that is going on with them that they are not happy with as they haven’t had the experience that they have of being in care, so the main reason I got involved in doing this was because I’ve had the experience of being in care and can relate what they are going through so, I feel like I would be the one who they could talk to.

By being involved in LILAC you get to see what is going on in different local authorities and how they run things. Also get to meet young people who are either care leavers or still in care. The main rewarding thing about being in LILAC is real achievement for me and my team to show that not every young person who is/been in care is a bad person or not able to achieve anything because they have been in care as the media only cover the negative never the positive.

In a recent assessment I was impressed by the facilities that were available but disappointed by the lack of involvement that young people had.

We have seven standards to assess on. The main things to have in a care setting are to make sure young people are listened to, to have a voice and be heard. Being corporate parents, would you treat your own children like this?

Every time we do an assessment we always do feedback to let them know how they did or what they need to do and offer our support if they need it. Because we assess on the seven standards they need to get all seven before they get the full LILAC stamp to say that they have been ‘LILAC-ed’ so when the inpection body Ofsted comes round, they can say that young assessors have been here and done assessment on our local authority and we have passed their standards.

If I had one wish for the government to improve things for children in care I’d ask them to try and remove the stigma about being in care. Make it more positive so young people don’t feel like they’re to blame for being taken into care.

Nothing can bring back Mel, but her experience is making a difference

Ian Leech and his daughter Mel

By Ian Leech

Following a summer of ‘common ailments’, in the August of 2007 my eldest daughter Melissa was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

It was at that moment our relationship with the NHS began. Melissa was a student at Aston in Birmingham, she was living university life to the full and if there is such a place as heaven, it seemed Melissa was already there.

However, the day after her 20th birthday her world, and ours, changed in an instant, with the news that she had lymphatic cancer.

Like the staff that cared for Mel, we were thrust into the role of carers, the difference was, they were professionals, and they’d had training. There isn’t anything in life that can prepare you for the role we suddenly found ourselves plunged into, no parenting manual or course to attend, you rely on pure instinct, love, and the hope that the decisions you are making are the right ones.

We watched and waited, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for nine months. We watched for any sudden rise in Mel’s temperature, a signal that she may have contracted an infection and the knowledge that a trip to A&E would be imminent. We waited for consultants to arrive with the latest news and would try to remain calm if it wasn’t what we wanted to hear. We waited for calls for results following x rays and scans. We watched the hard work put in by nurses and other staff and grew to appreciate the role of everyone, from the consultants to healthcare assistants and even the lady who came round with the tea trolley.

Mel’s care during her time in hospital was very good, but there was room for improvement, minor tweaks rather than wholesale changes.

Having patient access to the internet is something all hospitals should have. It kept Mel in touch with her friends and family and also allowed her to get support and relevant up to date information from the Lymphoma Association’s website.

Late teens to mid twenties is a difficult age range to nurse, Melissa wasn’t a child, but there was a loss of independence and an age regression that certainly brought about a strong reliance on us as parents. She needed us and fortunately, at both Burton and Nottingham hospitals we were allowed to stay with her for as long as she wanted. Another hospital we attended wasn’t so accommodating.

Our issues with Mel’s care mainly focused around communication and this lack of consistency between hospitals.

Mel was nervous of needles and I used to sit with her and let my hand be squeezed when blood was taken or canulas attached. However after being transferred to another local hospital for her chemotherapy, we found this practice wasn’t allowed and she had to deal with this trauma alone. It was at this same hospital where they refused to use her Hickman line (intravenous catheter) because the nurse wasn’t trained, this was after she’d been told needles would be a thing of the past after having the line inserted.

No news meant bad news. If a scan or test had worked, we seemed to be told immediately, whereas we always had to wait for bad news. This meant unnecessary worry. A simple phone call to explain that something hadn’t gone to plan but they were working on other options, would have alleviated the stress of not knowing.

On the whole though, Mel’s treatment and level of care in hospital was very good and this was helped by the wonderful rapport she built with her consultants at Nottingham and Burton. They knew Mel was a football fan and they used that as a common interest to build a patient/doctor confidence. It made Melissa feel special and that she was being treated as a person, not just a patient with a disease.

Our experience has led to me going into hospitals to talk to staff about our nine month insight into hospital life. The feedback from health professionals has been excellent. I also give the same service to bereavement groups. Nothing I can do will ever bring Melissa back, but it’s nice to know that even though she’s no longer with us, her experience is being used to make a difference to people’s lives.

To find out more, visit the website Mad4Mel.
For information about lymphoma visit the Lymphoma Association website.

When ‘thank you’ are the best words you can hear

Jo Sharp, parent support advisor

Jo Sharp, 38, from Croydon, south London, is a parent support advisor with the charity School-Home Support (SHS). Jo works in an infant school, a junior and a secondary, all in south Croydon. Here she explains why her role is vital and describes its challenges its rewards.

I became a parent support advisor because…I’d provided support to my neighbours, it became apparent to me that there were many families and children who weren’t receiving the help they were entitled to. I enjoy the range and diversity of the work as well as the fact that I reach out to families directly and provide a holistic service to them.

My aim is…to develop a supportive environment for the families and children. For me, the relationship is often the work and I feel it is a great privilege to be allowed into people’s lives and share in their experiences.

The first child I helped support was…suffering from extreme anxiety over going to school and his attendance was below 50% as a result.

Teachers knew there was an issue with this child because…he’d attend maybe two or three days a week and leave early. He appeared withdrawn and lacked confidence.

The first thing I did was…meet his family to look at possible reasons for his anxiety. His parents were extremely worried and had tried to support him in the best way they could. Despite this, the child would often lock himself away in his room rather than face questions about school. His parents and I agreed that I would meet with him in school rather than at home.

The reaction I got from him was… we spent a long time discussing his experiences at school and his feelings regarding his own self esteem and confidence. Because he had started school in year eight, he’d missed out on the bonding with his peers in year seven. This had a big impact on how he felt he fitted in, and he’d started to put himself second to everyone else in his quest to ‘be liked’. He’d also started to develop much faster than some of his peers so felt he stood out too much. All this had left him feeling increasingly anxious about coming to school until he just couldn’t face anymore. Over the weeks we looked at ways of improving his assertiveness and developing a positive image of himself. He was allowed a reduced timetable at school, gradually building up to full days.

I knew we’d started to get somewhere when…he became more active at the weekends and started playing football and socialising more with others. Prior to this he found it difficult to leave the safety of his house for prolonged periods.

The hardest thing was…keeping up the momentum. It would only take a slight knock for him to feel anxious, however by maintaining close contact with him and his family and being there to support him when he was feeling anxious, the anxiety became less severe.

The most rewarding thing was…to find that he’d not missed one day of school and that he’d really turned his life around! His attendance is 100% and he participates in activities outside of school, his teachers have said he’s much more positive in school and appears to enjoy his time there. His family has also expressed their delight at having their son back!

To do this job you need to be…patient! Change doesn’t happen overnight. The rewards are fantastic when you see first hand how the support you have played a part in has had positive effects on families and young people. I believe that you need to be able to connect emotionally with the families, having empathy and compassion whilst also being able to look at the bigger picture and think logically about what support can be provided. A good understanding of local services and outside agencies is key.

The biggest problem facing the sort of young children I help support is…a lack of understanding. Sometimes it is very practical support that is required and at other times it is more emotional, but either way I feel that young people often feel misunderstood because we as adults actually lack a perspective on their world.

If I could have a word in education secretary Michael Gove’s ear I’d…ask that more focus be placed on supporting families and children in and outside of school. It works!

The best thing a child I’ve helped support has said to me is…thank you!

Like animals? Fancy working in an abattoir?

Enter, if you will, the parallel universe of the traditional local authority careers advisor, where nothing bears much relation to a young person’s dreams or talents.

In this spooky alternative reality, I have followed the 1985 suggestion of my school-based careers advisor, ditched my “unrealistic” dream of becoming a journalist and am now a teacher.

Mr Saba Salman, meanwhile, didn’t become a documentary filmmaker but stuck to the advice of his careers advisor and became – ta daa! – a careers advisor! And among my friends I count an abattoir worker (she wanted to be a vet but the computer said ‘no’), a prison officer (she’s actually a showbiz journalist) and a lawyer (she said she was shy but liked languages and writing – she’s now a European social policy consultant).

This parallel universe is, of course, based on events some two decades ago, but it’s incredible that so many people still recall the terrible advice they had – and it’s coloured their image of the entire profession.

My nice but singularly insipid adviser informed me that journalism was “a bit difficult” to get into and refused to organise work experience at my local paper on the grounds that I’d be turned away from such a competitive profession. Credit to her that instead of finishing me off completely by yelling “HEY LOSER! YOU’RE ONLY 13 AND YOU’VE YOUR WHOLE LIFE AHEAD OF YOU BUT – BEHOLD – I CRAP ON YOUR DREAMS!”, she comforted me with the affirmation that I was “a good all rounder” who would be suited to teaching.

Now I take my hat off to teachers; I know some inspiring ones working in challenging schools, and it was my brilliant English teacher who supported my interest in writing. But I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do – and teaching wasn’t it.

Mr Saba Salman had a similar experience. After explaining that he liked reading, writing and photography, he was inexplicably told to work in careers advice. Meanwhile my pet-friendly friend punched her likes (people, animals) into a computer programme during her advice session and was told to work in a slaughter house…and so the stories go on.

Was there a massive yet unreported national shortage of teachers, careers advisors, prison officers and abattoir staff in the mid-80s? Were well-meaning careers advisors attempting to rebalance the economy? Or was the service just plain rubbish?

I ignored the patronsing old boot who misadvised me, concluding that it was she who was difficult, not my chosen career. But how many of my peers took the advice along with an unsuitable career path after someone rode roughshod over their dreams?

The careers advice has changed since I was at school. Known as Connexions, what it does well is to target the young and vulnerable with information on careers and personal issues. But its shortfalls were documented in a report from the CfBT Educational Trust last year and Connexions offices face massive job losses as a result of public spending cuts.

So it was with interest that I noted the recent news that the government is to take careers advice responsibility away from councils and launch its first all-age careers service building on Next Step and Connexions. The all-age service launches in 2012 and aims to offer seamless and universal careers advice.

Connexions will disappear. Councils will still advise vulnerable young people, but with what funding and under what auspices is unknown- and that might impact on the disadvantaged.

However, the Department of Innovation, Business and Skills acknowledges that careers guidance is at the heart of increasing social mobility. The pledge that schools will be under a legal duty to secure independent, impartial careers guidance for students is interesting, as is the option for a kite mark for the best career guidance and a register of providers meeting the highest standards.

The new service should include a strong online presence as young people are increasingly looking to the internet for advice. The online youth support charity YouthNet, for example, runs a rich, web-based careers advice resource The Site with a valuable ‘ask the experts’ option.

And the service could help older workers. Research published today by the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) and Cranfield School of Management describes the stagnation in the careers of many over 50s. With the fixed retirement age being abolished in 2011, and the state pension age rising for both men and women to 66 in 2020, many people might look for a career change later in their life.

Of course unless the job market picks up, the recipients of this world-class careers advice won’t actually have anywhere to actually launch their careers – but let’s not quibble about that for now.

And finally, Mrs West Sussex County Council Careers Advisor c1985, it is to you I dedicate this blogpost (a form of journalism no less). Because it is with no thanks to you that I am here today. Cheers.

Sex, drugs and the electoral roll?

In terms of unusual musical collaborations, it’s right up there with Jay-Z and Coldplay or Ozzy Osbourne and Miss Piggy. Rising star of the urban grime scene, Ghetts, has paired up with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on a track urging young people to the complete the census form.

In a move that paves the way for Tinchy Stryder to hang out with MPs (oops, hang on – he already did) or Tinie Tempah to flex his lyrical muscle on behalf of the Electoral Commission (TBC), 25-year-old rapper Ghetts is calling on people to stand up and be counted on, Invisible, released this week.

On a serious note, however, the release of Invisible is part of a much-needed campaign that sees Ghetts (formerly known as Ghetto, real name Justin Regikala Clarke Samuel) encouraging young black people, to participate in the 2011 Census.

Ghetts’ reasons for taking part are simple and admirable; he feels the needs and interests of young people in the UK are ignored and that reaching them through music is one way of making sure they take part in the 2011 Census: “The point is that young people are the future. We’ve got to take every opportunity to get our views across so that we get the sort of communities that we want for our own kids. The census gives us a chance to shape the future of our neighbourhoods. It’s time to stand up and be counted.”

Grime star Ghetts

Ghetts involvement is a way for the powers that be to reach those they assume are ‘hard to reach’: “Young people can feel that they can’t influence the future, but with the help of Ghetts we can encourage them to take one step towards making a real contribution to their communities,” sas ONS head of stakeholder communications Helen Bray.

The slick production and marketing is as impressive as the message, which lends the whole project an air of credibility. As yet, it’s too early to see if it captures the attention of its target audience, or with how much cynicism the singer’s young fans will greet the track. But anything that can capture the attention of disinterested young people is welcome. Talking to an unemployed teenager from Hackney, east London, at a recent event, I asked her if she was cynical about the big society concept and she replied she had no idea what it meant (although this could just say more about the woolly nature of the concept than the teenager’s lack of knowledge).

In a break from usual pr form for a government agency, the track was launched at a school in Newham, east London and is getting airplay on radio stations with black listeners, such as BBC 1Xtra and pirate radio stations.

It’s the same tactic that led Def Jam records founder and hip hop impresario Russell Simmons to tackle election apathy among black Americans and and get involved in voter registration campaigns in the states (judging by the midterm results, it’s debatable as to how far his message got through).

Invisible explains that people need to fill in and return the census questionnaire to make sure local and national authorities know where services such as transport, housing, hospitals, schools, community centres and libraries are needed for the future. Ghetts raps: “Just remember this; if minorities don’t fill in the forms what’s the point in living in Britain at all? There ain’t nothing worse than being invisible but we can change that, ASAP.”

The census is carried out every 10 years by the ONS and helps government allocate resources to the areas that need them the most. On March 27 next year, 25m households in England and Wales will get a questionnaire through the post or by hand.

And now, in a gratuitously playful exercise not intended to detract from the message above, here are some tracks that might appear on Now That’s What I Call Census! Anyone got any others?
Nobody home – Pink Floyd
Where the streets have no name – U2
Across 110th Street – Bobby Womack
Say my name – Destiny’s Child
My name is – Eminem
Is there anybody out there – Pink Floyd
Who are You- The Who
That’s not my name – The Ting Tings

Here’s a neat idea: get rid of the neet label


By Andrew Purvis

I am currently CEO of youth charity Fairbridge, I have 20 rewarding years experience working in the private sector behind me, but it might surprise you to learn that I was ‘neet’ (not in employment, education or training) once – just like the million young people being tagged with that acronym today.

My experience was actually a good one, I had four months off following my first job after university, and it was a very productive time in my life. I gained skills which I then found useful in the job I moved into. Being neet wasn’t a problem for me, it was a situation I knew would be temporary and that I had the wherewithal to get myself out of. But I did not come from three generations of unemployment; I had not been the victim of domestic violence; I hadn’t been in care or excluded from school and I was lucky enough to have two loving parents to support me.

It’s this chasm of difference between the opposite ends of the neet spectrum that worries me in the wake of the comprehensive spending review. While schools funding has been ring fenced, complementary provision like that provided by Fairbridge is vulnerable. Benefits for the jobless and homeless are going to be reduced so for those million young people not in education, employment or training, difficult times are about to get even tougher. But not to worry, the government is using a payment by results approach to get lots of them back into work – so that’s okay, isn’t it?

Well no, it’s not. Having a neat, neet acronym is helpful shorthand and has undoubtedly brought attention to the problems of youth disengagement but the label is now confusing the issue and I want us to stop using it. Being badged ‘neet’ isn’t nice but it’s not the stigmatisation I have a problem with. It’s the fact that by putting the same label on a million young people, we’re preventing help reaching those who need it most.

A recent government report by the Audit Commission segmented the million neets and identified 380,000 young people, who were classed as being ‘sustained neet’. They have the biggest problems, are the biggest cost to society and are in greatest need of investment. By grouping all these young people together, it is easier for those who are commissioning services NOT to focus on these sustained neet. The term now creates great confusion over where support should be targeted. It is a real concern that much of the recent investment in reducing the neet figures, has gone to the top end – those closest to the job market like I was all those years ago – rather than the sharp end where it is genuinely needed.

As the economy recovers, those closest to the job market will move on to a job or education and the commissioners can put a tick in the box marked ‘reduced neet figures’ and go home thinking job done, ignoring the fact that the sustained neets are still there, without any targeted support. The label hides the fact that we need to start putting resource where it is needed most and where it will have the most impact.

Fairbridge runs courses across its 15 centres which focus on the skills these sustained neets will need to get back into employment, often in conjunction with corporate supporters. In London our Employ Me course gives young people, most of whom have never been in a workplace, basic skills to start them on the road to employment. From workplace behaviour to discovering what types of jobs are out there, they need to start from scratch which is what we help them to do. Without this support they will remain unable to take the even the first steps towards employment.

If we could make real inroads into that 380,000 sustained neets then many of our communities would be happier, safer and we would see a corresponding reduced burden on the coffers of the Ministry of Justice, Home Office, Department of Education and – because mental health is such an issue with our youth – the Department of Health.

To do that we need to commit to properly targeted interventions and this requires sophisticated commissioning of solutions. Let’s drop the neet label and let’s stop using money inefficiently by lumping together large groups of the population who have vastly differing needs. Only when we start being honest about where the real problems lie, can we start solving them.

Fairbridge is holding a parliamentary event today to raise awareness of its work among new MPs.

What the golden arches reveal about community aspiration

Mike Stevenson, MD, Thinktastic

By Mike Stevenson

On a Scotrail train a few weeks ago, my attention was caught by a sign with a smiling face and the words “thank you for not putting your feet on the seat.’” I felt immediate warmth towards the company as this positive reinforcement was a welcome change from the usual, punitive messages of “no parking”, “wait here until called” and “keep this area clear.” I’m sure most people can think of how some small, inexpensive communication has made them feel better or prompted them to behave differently.

To take a common example, the red and yellow arch of McDonald’s often provides the only whisper of colour on the landscape. Add words that lift your spirits are lifted and the impact can be dramatic; doesn’t “Happy Meal” sound more appealing than “burger and chips?”

Farther afield, the notorious favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are painted in candy colours, the result of a collaboration between residents and community artists. This doesn’t tackle the underlying issue of poverty but it does encourage positivity and optimism.

We all know how much our world is lifted by a warm smile. It’s magical and powerful. Yet I have worked with communities that report a persistent frown, characterised by a bleak landscape and negative surround sound. I recently spoke to residents who, when ranking preferences for their surroundings, placed colour and affirming messages in their top three desires. They are willing to make these changes happen; people want to see their towns and villages reflect their personality and aspirations. And why not? It’s affordable and has a lasting impact on residents during times of reduced public finance.

Does it work? Yes!

Outside of Edinburgh in Stoneyburn, I suggested using the drawings and words of primary school children to represent the landmarks of the village’s local history. This is now about to happen; the schools are behind the idea and the community is delighted to see the village’s long and illustrious history visibly featured. They believe this will restore a sense of pride in their heritage. We have used children’s words and paintings to encourage people to “Do More: Drink Less” in Stoneyburn. Adults were touched and it made far more impact than dire health warnings.

Similarly in nearby Armadale, because people asked for it, the village will now bear bright, distinctive signage, displaying the faces and words of local residents who speak of their dreams for the community. They also want to show young peoples’ art in the city centre. Displaying the talent and ideas of their residents is important to them.

Above, a poster designed by a child in Stoneyburn, West Loathian, speaks directly to the community.

Amazing Armadale” was the result of a series of creative workshops in schools, community halls, youth centres and at parents’ evenings. The result was a real consensus on what the town should look and feel like, and this has been put into practice. Armadale has held a music festival, regular “alcohol free Sundays” with street markets and a 5K charity run is being organised. This is real community change. Add their more colourful town centre and residents have helped to make quick, low-cost, tangible changes.

And it is local townspeople themselves who are making change happen – we’re not talking about huge budgets here. Earlier in the year, for example, 100 adults and children volunteered to take part in a clean-up in Stoneyburn. It’s also hoped that support will be offered from businesses with things like painting and gardening.

I would love to see more of this but, in terms of public services, I am struck by how little real creative dialogue exists between them and their constituents. Public consultation can be dry and driven by service references and needs. What if community engagement could be fun, lively and uplifting, allowing the language of participants to lead the discussion? Masterplans, blueprints, strategies and partnerships would rarely be mentioned. I know this because the techniques I use in my work elicit imaginative solutions from the most unlikely of people.

When I showed a class of 12-year-olds in East Lothian the logo of their local council, the first thing that came to mind for one youngster was the phrase “no ball games.” He views his council as a block to enjoyment. Others are likely to feel the same and the long-term impact of this attitude will drive further distance between councils and residents.

So, does this really matter, especially during a time of austerity? When I speak on this subject I get universal approval from audiences as diverse as business leaders, primary school children and local councillors. The consensus is that they are tired of a world that headlines bad news and displays signs that instruct and obstruct. In tough economic times, the need to create environments that lift, improve accessibility and value people could be more important than ever.

Young, gifted and blanked?

Sarah Dougan
Caroline Holroyd
“People assume because we’re young and because we have suffered with a mental health problem, what we say is irrelevant,” says 19-year-old Edinburgh student Sarah-Jane Dougan. Dougan and Leeds-based Caroline Holroyd, 21, are members of Very Important Kids (VIK), a panel of campaigners advising mental health charity YoungMinds on its aims.

Both women have experienced mental health issues, including depression, for which they have undergone counselling and therapy. VIK aims to help shape health services; it recently worked with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, for example. Dougan and Holroyd’s brand of user involvement reflects health secretary Andrew Lansley’s patient-led vision for the NHS. Here they explain why politicians and policymakers should listen to them.

We got involved with VIK because… it was a chance to use our negative experience with mental health, and get something positive out of it. I’m sure a lot of service users have opinions on how their service can be improved or change, and they know what worked and what didn’t, and also what needs to be done. As part of VIK we have the opportunity to influence these things, and get the ball rolling to bring change (Sarah Dougan/SD).

Patients must influence services because… We’re the experts; real life experience is what has informed our opinions (Caroline Holroyd/CH).

Young people in particular must influence services because…we are the future, the next generation. We’re the ones who will be using these services in years to come (CH). Having a good service for young people will mean that they are less likely to have to use adult services when they are older. Prevention is better than treatment (SD)!

The biggest challenge has been…making people realise that young people with mental health problems can have a valuable input. People seem to assume that because we are young, and because we have suffered with a mental health problem, what we say is irrelevant (SD).

Consultation today is…rare, but improving. Sometimes I feel when services ask for young people’s participation it is simply a tokenistic gesture – lip service (CH).

The key to real patient involvement is…engaging with people from all areas of society and making sure it is easy for them to get involved (CH). It’s about listening and actually hearing what the patient has to say rather than the organization simply making a bunch of decisions and then asking if it’s ok (SD).

Mental ill-health among the young…isn’t always openly discussed even within families where one or more of them has a mental health problem. Mental illness in itself is an issue that is kept under wraps because of the prevailing stigma, lack of education and the many myths surrounding it, sometimes perpetuated by the media (people with mental illness as serial killers, and so on) (CH). It’s an issue that people would rather admit wasn’t happening (SD).

The biggest problem with the mental health system is…the waiting times for receiving treatment, particularly talking therapies. People can be waiting months and even then not end up receiving the correct treatment for their condition. On the whole treatment can be very hit and miss, and support isn’t always sustained meaning people can be suffering in silence (CH). People can’t access services when they need it. If you have anorexia for example, mental health services only seem to recognize it when your body weight is so low that you need to be hospitalized. This is relying on the patients physical health rather than their mental health (SD).

The biggest problem with psychiatric units is…they can feel like prisons; they can be very disempowering (CH). Patients are there to get help – not to be punished (SD)!

The biggest difference the government could make in mental health policy would be…to treat it with the same seriousness and urgency as physical health (SD).

If we had five minutes with health secretary Andrew Lansley…we’d ask him what he thinks needs to change. If he has the same points as us – why hasn’t something been done about it before (SD)? I’d emphasise the importance of prioritising young people’s mental health services and how promoting emotional wellbeing and using early intervention techniques can prevent more severe mental problems which will ultimately put less pressure on the NHS (CH).

Half of all children spot signs of neglect in their peers

Full story on Action for Children’s shocking new research in a piece I did for today’s Society Guardian. Makes you think twice about the shabbily-dressed boy at school who no one wanted to play with or the scrawny girl who got bullied in the playground. There’s a fine line between creating a vigilant society and encouraging the scaremongering finger-pointers, but today’s new report raises some important concerns ahead of the spending review that’s likely to decimate funding for child welfare.