Gerry Johnson, Online Director of XenZone, explains how a new training programme could equip young people to offer mental health support online.
Mental health is, quite rightly, in the spotlight: growing unmet demand for support should worry us all. But in addition to meeting this demand, we must also be able to meet need. And we believe, as well as helping everyone experiencing adverse mental health, we should offer preventative support as early as we can.
Early need can be met through the provision of psycho-educational material and self-help resources. A young person may want to use a goal-setting or mood-tracking tool to help them better understand and navigate their way through feelings of anxiety or depression. Or it may be that they need counselling with a professional therapist who can offer them a variety of approaches: from talking and music, to drama or art-based therapy.
There are many other important components of a therapeutic environment. One is a young person’s friendship group. We know that young people are often more influenced by their friends than by their family. This is why we consider peer support to be a critical area for development.
We see increasing numbers of children and young people regularly taking part in online forums, sharing their stories and offering advice so we know that they are benefitting from peer support.
With this in mind, we recently bid for and won funding to train a new cohort of young online peer supporters through a specially developed multi-media learning portal. The innovative project is supported by SBRI Healthcare, an NHS England initiative, led by the Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), and aims to reduce the pressure on specialist services and address the stigma associated with mental health by helping young people offer supervised online support to peers.
We are now shaping a training and assessment programme, which will see a new cohort of young peer supporters primed and ready to offer their support to others online.
The training programme will consist of four main elements, covering volunteering and participation, health and wellbeing, personal skills development and helping others. Young people will be fully supported throughout, and we’ll be talking to them and carefully monitoring the impact on their own wellbeing throughout.
We are also working hard on ways to deliver the training in a fresh and engaging way. Our aim is for the peer supporters to feel knowledgeable and supported, while closely involved with the programme. Each will choose an avatar when completing their online training, with virtual awards being given at various stages of the course. We are also ‘gamifying’ aspects of the training to appeal directly to the young people undertaking the process.
In thinking about early intervention and prevention and about a therapeutic environment for children and young people, it’s vital that we apply innovative new thinking and continue to talk to young people about what their experiences are and draw out from them what they want from mental health support services.
The peer supporters project is seeing us work closely with around 20 young people who are co-producing the programme with us. Giving them direct influence over a new aspect of support is an incredibly positive step towards effective early help for mental health.
It is certainly not ‘the answer’, but it is a powerful element in a therapeutic environment and is grounds for continuing to focus on finding as many ways as we can to help those in need.
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