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The Future of Youth Mental Health: What's participation, really?

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Global Mental Health Action Network: Member's Blog

The Future of Youth Mental Health: What's participation, really?

By Margianta S. J. D.; Ella Gow; Aviwe Funani; Priya P; Zsofia Szlamka; Maiyshla Chunwan, Peter Varnum

Hungarian psychologist and mental health advocate Zsofia Szlamka considered how to describe her involvement in youth mental health over recent years. She looked up, away from the screen, to gather her thoughts. “When am I present in a space because I am young, or because I’m a woman, or because I’m Eastern European…” Szlamka paused, searching for the right words. “What are the labels because of which one is invited or not invited, and what are the occasions in which one is present in their own right?”

Szlamka talked about the importance of staying away from tokenism, the idea that young people would be asked to represent the views of broad, diverse populations. “Whenever we listen to anyone else,” Szlamka said, “let’s listen to what they say, and let’s not look at what they seem to be.”

She and others bring expertise to design and execution of mental health initiatives not because of their labels, but because of their unique experience, educational and professional backgrounds. Other young people echoed these sentiments in the recent session on the future of youth participation in youth mental health programs, part UNICEF’s inaugural Global Forum for Children and Youth. The session was co-designed and led by young people of the Global Mental Health Action Network’s child and youth working group.

"No one is voiceless. We just have to hand over the mic." -Gian

"Young people should be included in designing, executing and evaluating policies and research to ensure relevance when it comes to mental health and other issues that affect us in society." - Aviwe Funani, Programme, Policy and Advocacy Manager, Waves for Change, South Africa

Grace Gatera, a lived experience advocate in Kigali, Rwanda, urged leaders “to think of young people not only as young people, but as experts. Not to think of them as ‘future members,’ but as active, living participants in the world.” And all participants rejected the notion of tokenism. Margianta Surahman, founder of Emanicipate Indonesia and a UNICEF ambassador, put it simply: “We are not a monolithic population in the world.”

"When working in the space of youth mental health, there is really this need to care and to connect. This meaningful connection is the basis of it all – so when we get funding, when we do research and policy, the caring and connection is what will lead everything to flow." -Maiyshla Chunwan, Board Member and Youth Mental Health Advocate, Mind Matters Mauritius

The topic of youth participation has become more visible recently, but too often an unequal dynamic between young people and older professionals remains. Change can come in the form of attitudes, structures and practices. For example, an established professional may be willing to cede her invitation to participate in a conference to a young person who may be less experienced but more of an expert, as Zslamka says she now does more often. A funder may favor proposals that are generated by young people and projects led by young people, as Grand Challenges Canada does. And an advisory council may take time to create space for young people to earn one another’s trust, as Orygen Global’s has done.

These changes are welcome, but such practices need to become normalized and more refined. “The approach has improved, in general,” Gian said, “but frankly speaking, I still find organizations have a patronizing view of young people.” Priya Prakash, the founder of HealthSetGo in India, agrees: “Many a time, the policies that are made are not reflective of what young people are going through right now.”

So what’s the best way to do youth participation? And what should young people demand?

“Co-creating, being involved in the process, being given the liberty to innovate in your own ways – according to your complexities, not according to some classist, sexist, racist, misogynistic, colonialist program managers in some Global North countries…. You deserve better. Demand better. No need to feel guilty. If you don’t like the way the table is set, turn over the table.”

At the Global Mental Health Action Network, young people will always have a seat at the table. Indeed, the child and youth working group is launching a Youth Engagement Group – to connect young people around the world to global mental health programs and vice versa – in early 2022. (The process has been led by young people including Gatera, Surahman and Ella Gow, who moderated a panel within this session and who serves as Orygen Global’s Youth Engagement Lead, and supported by established organizations.)

"If you’re a young person, it’s important that you find supportive communities around you, that you figure out a way for your voice to be heard in your local communities." -Priya

You can sign up to the group here, and/or email with any questions.

As we turn the calendar to 2022, we look to take advantage of key “global moments” for creating change. If there’s one thing this session taught us, is that’s young people should lead the way.