Changing Minds: a way to help young people overcome mental health problems.
Project managed by Mind, it works with people aged 14 to 25 and is one of the charities supported by the Guardian and Observer.
Anyone remembering their adolescence can summon up that rawness and anxiety at a world grown suddenly shaky under your feet. Body and mind can feel under assault. Nothing is what it was and everything can feel like a threat of failure, from exams to friends, while online and on every billboard the world pours out images of unattainable perfection.
No wonder adolescence is when mental problems erupt, especially for the one in 10 children who already had an underlying disorder. Half of mental problems start by the mid-teens. All too often no early intervention picks it up in childhood, because the threadbare Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) fails unhappy 11-year-olds panicked into dropping out at the start of secondary school or children caught in family traumas. One in 12 young people turn to self-harming, often reluctant to seek help from school, home or GP. Even if they do, the shocking waiting time to be referred to CAMHS can be too long to be of any use.
Jessica Bonnici was 14 when she developed bulimia, secretly hiding the bingeing and the vomiting. “All my friends were really thin, pictures everywhere of thin girls and I wasn’t one of them. Going to secondary school, suddenly what you wear and how you look mattered. I thought bulimia was a brilliant idea – eat what you like and get thin by vomiting. But I didn’t lose weight. Bulimia doesn’t do that – your weight just flatlines.”
She has a mane of hair, an expressive, smiling face and she exudes a self-confidence well beyond her 16 years. She seems so robust and contented, it’s hard to imagine her as a shy and withdrawn person, agonising about her appearance. She thanks the Newport branch of Mind for that transformation, with its Changing Minds project for 14-25 year olds, mostly working in groups, helping one another and helping to design the programme. “In the end my mother found out. My face swelled up. The vomiting puts pressure on your cheeks,” and she presses them together to show how. “My mother was really shocked. She took me to the GP and he said I’d lose my teeth, I’d be infertile and loads of serious other things.”
He referred her to CAMHS – but the long waiting list means that, 18 months later, she has not had an appointment. But thanks to Changing Minds she probably doesn’t need one any more. A youth worker at school recommended the project. “Three months later, I’d stopped the bulimia. They’d taught me to cope, how to structure what I eat, three meals a day, how to deal with stress, how to breathe if you panic. I’ve changed a lot: I was reserved and I never went out, I wouldn’t speak to anyone. Now I go out a lot, I’m in the sixth form and I’ve got a job. When you’re 14 you don’t like the way you look, but now I think not everyone can look alike. How dull if everyone looked the same!”
That’s not all. She’s also mentoring others. The project works because the most trusted help often comes from other young people with problems, not from adults. Jessica helped a girl a year younger who was hiding from school, suffering panic attacks, unable to speak to people. “She was scared at meeting me, so she brought her nan and we met at the leisure centre. It was hard, I had to do all the talking as she didn’t say a word.” They exchanged texts, phoned each other and met regularly. She started to open up, telling Jessica she was scared of failing but really wanted to pass her exams. “I just listened a lot and told her I’d got problems, which made it easier. I got her to come to Changing Minds and now she’s back at school, doing really well. I’m just so pleased for her – and I’ve seen so many in the group doing well.” Jessica found mentoring a two-way therapy, drawing strength from helping someone else.
In the group some young people have severe problems. Andrew Brennan, 19, has Asperger’s and was bullied remorselessly at school. “My Dad said I should fight back, but I couldn’t.” Andrew suffered a severe breakdown in his GCSE year and was in hospital for several months. “It was schizo-affective disorder,” he says. ”I couldn’t sleep or eat and I heard voices. My mother was trying to calm me down but I heard voices coming out of her mouth saying she wanted to kill me. I’ve attempted suicide lots of times.” He insisted on giving his name and describing his condition for this Guardian appeal, as he feels so strongly that Changing Minds has given him friendship and support. “They don’t judge you, they just accept you.”
Another member of the group is Angela, who has anorexia, with all kinds of problems. After several fosterings she was adopted happily, but at 13 she secretly found her birth mother on Facebook, a painful encounter. “She kept on letting me down, not turning up. Now if I see her in the street we don’t even nod to each other, just pass by.” Changing Minds has shored up her self-confidence.
Each Mind group has to raise its own funds for its local projects. It costs just £300 for each of these 14- to 25-year-olds at Changing Minds, a fraction of the cost of conventional treatment. They start with one-to-one sessions and then join the groups on anxiety management courses: many – like Jessica – become peer support volunteers. Often there is no other help, for all the recent political piety on mental health. Newport Mind wants to spread this scheme to four other areas, catching adolescent problems before they turn acute – but they need donations to make it happen.
The above article by Polly Toynbee first appeared on theguardian.com on Dec 19th, 2014.