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Mental health & wellbeing summit: Conversation is the best tool we have

11 October 2021

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candour, and more unashamed conversation.” — Glenn Close (actress)

On World Mental Health Day, 10 October 2021, the World YMCA hosted the third in its series of Youth Led Solutions Summits, on the topic of mental health and wellbeing. The event brought together passionate young people from some 50 countries worldwide, to share their experiences and solutions to tackle the multiple facets of mental health.

World Mental Health Day is designed to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. It is an opportunity for all those working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and to say what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality, worldwide.

Young people’s mental health challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with education, employment, community and relationships severely affected. Public health actions such as social distancing have been necessary to reduce the spread of the virus, but they have led to isolation, loneliness and an increase in stress and anxiety.

Keynote speeches: tackling online abuse and finding creative release in art

Loizza Aquino, founder of Peace Mind Canada, moderated the Summit and introduced two keynote speakers: Rosie Thomas and Jeff Sparr.

Rosie Thomas, CEO of PROJECT ROCKIT, a youth-driven movement against online bullying, hate and prejudice in Australia, spoke about a situation in which digital solutions have allowed young people to stay in touch with families, friends and colleagues during COVID, but in which they have also led to a rise in online abuse.   “Challenging hate is hard”, she says, “but if we change nothing, nothing will change. It is important to reengineer social spaces. We need to advocate change to make a difference across the world and ensure a kinder and more respectful social media.”

“There are small things that we can do to bring about this change on social media. There is strength in numbers. Use your power for good; it only takes one person to change the narrative, and get others to follow. Writing a counter-comment or saying something positive about the person being targeted discourages haters. Most importantly, reach out to the person experiencing this injustice, so they don’t feel completely alone.”

Jeffrey Sparr, the Founder of PeaceLove in the US, has found COVID solace in art. “Creativity can change the course of your life,” he says. “It enables you to switch your focus from what you can control to what you can’t. It’s important to carve out time to take care of mind and body. Make creative spaces to escape and find peace of mind. Take two minutes every day to try and create something. Don’t be afraid to let creativity come over you…”

Panel: practical and policy solutions for mental health

Loizza then chaired a panel discussion which found that building and sustaining meaningful conversations is key to finding solutions for mental health challenges.

Martin Johnson, a YMCA Global Change Agent and founder of YMCA Australia’s Inside Our Minds Campaign, said, “I feel the greatest sense of community around my friends. It’s easier to deal with problems when you know there are others who are facing the same issues.”

“Create space for young people, give them the agency to be empowered, and they’ll show you what they can do – just like they are doing here and now in this Summit on World Mental Health Day”, he said.

“Part of communication is to listen – not just to respond, but to understand. Listening builds trust in a relationship, and opens up space to talk about mental health”, says Brenda Soriano-Villa. Brenda runs Community Development programmes at YMCA Greater Long Beach: she emphasised the ‘inter-sectionality’ of mental health which overlaps with so many areas.

Andrea Fuentes, a Chilean volunteer and a social developmentalist and psychologist, says, “It is important to incorporate youth in youth-related conversations. We need to know what the needs of our young people are in regards to mental health, and help them speak about issues with their peers.” She spoke of the challenges of addressing an issue which – in her Latin America and Caribbean region – often remains taboo.

“There is a need to be flexible in dealing with mental health. There are so many diverse ways to help people with their issues”, says Bonga Chiliza, a psychiatrist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a member of South Africa YMCA. “Often it’s a case of bolting mental health responses onto other responses, for instance in programmes of HIV support.”

Chiara Servili, a child neuropsychiatrist at the Department of Mental Health & Substance Use at the World Health Organization, says, “We need to give an opportunity to young people to share their voices and their experiences of locally driven projects. And then we need to help scale up these projects, with the engagement of young people.  A key thing we lack is data and evaluation.”

Two practical tools to support young people’s mental health

Two such mental health initiatives – developed for and with young people – were the focus of the latter part of the Summit, in which participants joined breakout groups.

They were The Open Manifesto – a series of guidelines for talking about and dealing with mental health issues – and the My Wellbeing digital tool.  Both were initially developed in a series of global ‘Reimagine labs’ run in late 2020 and early 2021 by Y Australia alongside the Australian consultancy Business Models Inc., BMI.

“We are putting youth in the driver’s seat”, said Y Australia CEO Melinda Crole. “In order to change behaviour, perceptions and attitudes, we are working to change the cultural conversation about mental health in young people.”

The Summit road-tested the Open Manifesto by inviting comments on a series of statements on mental health – around Access and Empathy; Creating Safe Spaces; Trust through Relationships; Insight and Knowledge; Respecting the Individual; Being Seen and Heard. Any young people anywhere are invited to have their say: please do so in this ‘Polis’ survey here.

The Summit also introduced the My Wellbeing digital tool. It’s a concept that seeks to empower young people to take control of their mental wellbeing, to build a common language for mental wellbeing, and to foster a safe and inclusive community for healthy minds. Again, like the Open Manifesto, it is being co-created by young people, who are invited to have their say: please do so in this ‘Vurvey’ (video) survey here.

Both initiatives are summarised in the website – we are the World of Wellbeing.

Throughout the event, the testimony of YMCA young people on mental health was heard.  YMCA doesn’t just listen: it builds the mental well being of young people, nurturing body, mind and spirit.

Sophia, from YMCA Swansea, Wales, spoke of YMCA as ‘the first taste of community I had ever had – a place where people can be what they want to be’.  Sarah, from YMCA La Crosse in Wisconsin, USA, said ‘Community care is what we [in the YMCA] do’. Florence, from YMCA Brighton, England, said ‘My advice is to talk to someone you trust’ – she trusted the YMCA.

Read about the YMCA Youth Led Solutions Summit on mental health and wellbeing (10 October 2021) here.

Subscribe to the World YMCA YouTube channel, where all videos of all sessions of the Summit will be posted.

Read about the YMCA Youth Led Solutions Summit on the future of work (7-9 June 2021) here.

Read about the YMCA Youth Led Solutions Summit on climate action  (19-23 October 2020) here.

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