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Training young people to give mental health peer support as the fall out from the COVID-19 pandemic continues

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Global Mental Health Action Network: Member's Blog

Training young people to give mental health peer support as the fall out from the COVID-19 pandemic continues

Youth Care Network: A Project by young people for young people’s mental wellbeing

Anam Mittra, Manager, New Initiatives (Mariwala Health Initiative)

Co-facilitator of the Youth Care Network Project


As we enter the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the multifaceted nature of the havoc it has wrecked on billions of lives is starkly apparent and unyielding. New variants of the Covid-19 virus and the astonishing pace of multiplication of infection have laid waste to the health infrastructure and economies, especially in  low and middle income countries (LMICs). This is however what we know as the more visible impacts of the pandemic; the other lesser-known but in many ways equally debilitating fall-out has been that on the mental health of the masses. As citizens of the 21st century, what we’re experiencing is ‘unprecedented, unusual and extraordinary.’ The impact of the pandemic on our mental health can be seen in various ways including; acute distress, fear of losing loved ones, increased health anxiety, loneliness due to prolonged social isolation, social withdrawal, paranoia about the future, amongst many others. These impacts get further compounded for those living on the margins with pre-existing socio-economic vulnerabilities, a blatant lack of privilege, and little to zero access to any kind of support system.


Young people are both a force to reckon with and also a cohort that has varying degrees of privilege and marginalization. Often, owing to their age, and in many cases their socio-economic-cultural backgrounds, young people face challenges and unique psycho-social stressors. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated these stressors and created new sources of anxiety and vulnerability for them. For many, the pandemic meant a complete overhaul of plans for education and future employment, a sudden collapse in access to sexual and reproductive health services, social isolation from friends and deprivation from other important support systems, escalation of violence at home, etc. With the reality of limited access to quality and consistent mental health services; how can the youth cope in these gruelling times? 


This was the background and the context behind the Youth Care Network  (YCN) - a project jointly implemented by the Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI), iCALL Psychosocial Helpline, the YP Foundation and funded by MHI and the World Health Organisation in 2020. YCN is a four month module conceived with the objectives of building capacities and providing support to youth leaders in order for them to deliver psychosocial first aid services for their peers. A cohort of 35 young people were selected from a large pool of applications from across India. Special attention was paid to geographical representation as well as a demonstrated commitment to youth issues and rights. The project consisted of trainings to the cohort on a variety of important themes including - mental health and psychosocial distress, adolescent and youth mental health, Covid-19 and the psychosocial impact on adolescents, roles and responsibilities of mental health service providers, queer affirmative psychosocial support, etc. The module also trains participants in providing referrals to local mental health providers (including government and private entities) and undertaking resource mapping exercises in their local areas on relevant services, information and resources for youth well-being. 


Over the course of the project the youth leaders provide psychosocial support to their peers in their communities through tele-counselling and/or texting via online messaging platforms (depending upon the comfort levels of their clients). These calls would vary in their duration as well as the issues being faced by young people such as academic stress, conflict within families, relationship issues, grieving loss, anxiety, depression, mood disorders etc. Emphasis was laid on these calls being safe spaces for the clients where they could share without fear of judgement or rebuke. As part of monitoring the project and also providing some much-needed emotional support, weekly check-in calls would be made by the project facilitators to the youth leaders. In these weekly calls we would gauge the progress of their work and also inquire about their mental health and caution against burnout and address any challenges they were facing as part of their work. 


At the conclusion of the first phase of the project, the cohort of youth leaders showed considerable enthusiasm at taking forward what they had learnt and implementing their own initiatives on youth mental health. These ideas are being evaluated as we plan for the next round of the project. The training provided were received as thought provoking and important for their perspective-building on key issues. Through the support calls they made, the youth leaders familiarised themselves further with the needs of their peers as well as the challenges faced by them. The resource mapping exercise proved to be important for collating relevant information for young people and for highlighting the gaps in available resources and requirements of young people. The conclusion of the first module of the YCN showed us how essential peer-led initiatives can be; they highlight the lived experiences of those leading it which are key to providing mental health services in any community setting.


To find out more about the Global Mental Health Action Network, click here