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From research to reality: mental health and young people

Angela Awuah

Angela Awuah is a young practitioner and the founder of Mental Health The Arts. Here she brings to life the evidence we uncovered in our latest research digest and shares her experiences of working with young people during the pandemic.

Mental Health The Arts (MHTA) is an early intervention creative arts academy for young people aged 13-25 who have direct and indirect experience of mental health. Our mission is to ‘Educate, Equip and Empower’ young people to cultivate creative coping mechanisms to use when they are going through challenging times. We mostly work with young people who have lived experience of mental health and young carers.

At MHTA, we deliver workshops and programmes using a variety of creative expression, from dance to creative writing. The findings in the Centre for Cultural Value’s recent research digest, Young people’s mental health, are therefore directly relevant to the experiences of the young people we work with.

Creative coping mechanisms

Although not all the workshops are explicitly tailored to the young person’s preference of the creative arts, our evaluation of our work highlights that all forms of the creative arts we use enable young people to express their feelings. We see that increasingly, the creative arts have enabled them to explore areas of their lives that they wouldn’t necessarily share in traditional settings. For us this has brought out the authentic essence of the arts. Knowingly, the young people we work with have been able to take the creative coping mechanisms they have cultivated and use them as a response when they are facing challenging times.

There have also been moments where we have had to think about evolving and adapting to current forms of creative art ‘expression’. We have used the traditional arts as a starting point, but evolving also means using tech and social media as a way of consistently engaging with the young people. Topics such as how to create a YouTube channel, for example, are things young people are really interested in, in the context of becoming a creative.

Finding the safe spaces

In addition, young people have also expressed an improvement to their mental health because of participating with our work. Whilst this is clearly a positive outcome, it would be interesting to investigate whether this impact is maintained once the work is completed. For example, our main programme, The Arts Programme, takes a holistic approach. Where young people have relived traumatic experiences, they have had the opportunity to access cognitive behavioural therapy. This relates to the concept of ‘safe spaces’ which came out strongly in the research digest, and opens up questions about what is considered a safe space for young people. From the perspective of our organisation, we can assume that because of our positive work we are creating a space for young people to thrive through enabling them to share. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the right resources to heal from their pain.

Adapting through Covid

Like many organisations, the Covid pandemic played a significant role in changing gears. For MHTA, we were forced to look inwardly at our strategy and how we could continue to maintain the same impact without face-to-face engagement. The reality was that perhaps changing practically from face-to-face engagement to online work would mean that our outcomes would change, and that some young people may miss out due to circumstances beyond their control. Questions such as ‘how do we maintain a safe space? arose because young people were now at home in environments where they were not able to share freely, creatively or verbally. For this reason, we have adapted our work to have a mixture of both face-to-face and online interaction.

Learnings (and questions) for the future

What resonated with me most about the findings in the digest was the strong evidence around music as a creative art form to support the mental health and wellbeing of teenagers and young people. At MHTA, we don’t currently use music composition or lyric writing as a way of empowering, educating, and equipping young people. It would be interesting to see how this can be incorporated in our work, including having facilitators that have used this themselves as a way of coping

Looking forward, I would also be intrigued to know more about how different groups of diverse young people interact with different types of cultural experiences, and the impact it has on their wellbeing. At MHTA we work with a niche set of young people, so my questions are these: does giving young people agency enable them to develop the skills they need for their future? Are they more or less likely to engage more positively/ negatively to different creative forms? And, crucially, why?

Find out more about MHTA’s work and read our latest research digest.

You can also follow MHTA on Twitter and Instagram.

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