Mental Health For All Webinar: Driving Forward Youth Participation
On Tuesday 25th January, 2022, our #MHForAll webinar series brought together a panel of experts to discuss what it means to have truly meaningful youth participation when it comes to mental health. The session was a follow up to the 2021 UNICEF Forum for Children and Youth session The future of youth mental health: what’s participation, really? with speakers including:
- Aviwe Funani, Waves for Change (South Africa)
- Saisha M, Mariwala Health Initiative (India)
- Ahmad Nisar, Mental Health Advocate (Afghanistan)
- Michelle Cruickshank, Grand Challenges Canada (Canada)
- Gary Shaughnessy, Zurich Foundation (Switzerland)
Together each of the panellists highlighted the opportunity and urgent need to ensure that the voices of young people are heard throughout the design, development and evaluation of mental health programmes around the world.
The panel explained that there a number of pitfalls and challenges that exist around this. In her introduction to the session, Aviwe Funani highlighted the potential for tokenistic attempts at engaging youth, and a wider failure of the sector to acknowledge and address the power dynamics at play. As Saisha pointed out, it is often a fundamental disbelief in the competency of youth that acts as a deterrent in moving forward and away from such tokenism. Ahmad Nisar also highlighted the urgent need to challenge and address these historic power dynamics in order to dispel their historically exclusionary effects that often prevent participation from those with lived experience of mental ill health.
The panel also discussed some of the practical steps that can be taken to overcome these challenges and ensure meaningful youth engagement. Gary Shaughnessy drew on his experience at the Z Zurich Foundation to highlight that organisations must be clear from the start about how and why they are seeking young people’s engagement, and making sure that their participation was relevant and meaningful rather than tokenistic. Similarly Michelle Cruickshank emphasised how Grand Challenges Canada (GCC) aims to be guided by the principle that those who are closest to the challenge are the ones who are best positioned to present solutions. To illustrate this point, she highlighted that 80% of the innovations in the GCC portfolio are youth-led, which provides the additional benefit of allowing young people to connect with and learn from one another.
When looking ahead to the future of young engagement, Saisha urged for young people to be seen as active participants in mental health work, and for the community to turn away from conceptions of a single, homogenous youth. Instead, she pointed out, the community must shift towards strong, intersectional participation, focusing instead on youth with disabilities, youth in conflict settings, LGBTQ+ youth, along with other marginalised groups. This was a point that was strongly echoed by all the panellists. In particular Ahmad Nisar highlighted that the community must embrace the uniqueness of individuals, since “just like a garden’s multicolored flowers make it beautiful, society is made beautiful by embracing diversity”.
Together the panellists all agreed that engaging youth was an iterative process, and something which organisations must be constantly learning from and building on. Both Gary Shaughnessy and Michelle Cruickshank explained that this is something that their organisations were constantly working to do, particularly from a funding perspective, and Aviwe Funani closed the session by reflecting on the hope and potential for the future of youth engagement, particularly when the community is willing to come together to have meaningful and inclusive conversations that allow individuals and organisations to learn from one another.
You can watch the recording of the session in full here.