Young people in crisis: how our county is responding

 In Inspiration

On the Independent Oxford blog today, Ruba Asfahani explores how local indie businesses, charities and community workers are responding to the nationwide mental health crisis for young people across the county. >>

YoungCreatives at Modern Art Oxford
YoungCreatives at Modern Art Oxford. Photo by Phil Brooks

“Essentials, safety, support, care, nurture, resources, spaces where they’re listened to – those are the things that change peoples lives.”  Zahra, YWMP

You don’t need to be a parent to have sympathy for the young people of this country. As if it wasn’t already hard enough to be young; with hormones, peer pressure and anxieties coming at them thick and fast, the pandemic created an even greater concern – a mental health crisis.

A survey from the Office for National Statistics found that 16-29 year olds feel considerably more anxious than the general population. In fact, 42% reported high levels of anxiety compared with 34% on average and just 29% for people aged 50 to 69. Furthermore, The Prince’s Trust NatWest Youth Index found that almost a quarter of young people believed they would never recover from the emotional impact of the pandemic and almost half agreed the pandemic had left them feeling “burnt out”.

Despite the growing awareness in the public that young people can be depressed, there is a substantial gap in diagnosis and treatment. The charity Young Minds have found that less than one in three young people with a mental health condition can  access NHS care and treatment.

An online mental health support service used by the NHS analysed the effect of the pandemic on under-18s; it found a rise in depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, with the biggest increase among those from black and minority backgrounds*. 

Time for action

So what can be done? I spoke to some phenomenal people working directly with young people in Oxfordshire, hoping for a better future. Sabiene North is the CEO of Be Free Young Carers, an organisation which supports those aged eight to 17, who care for a family member.

Sabiene said, “young people don’t need our sympathy, they need action. The last few years have been incredibly tough on young carers and young people in general, we now need to invest time and money into them to build them back up, give them the same opportunities, and to give them the support they need”.

Jodie Lloyd-Jones, CEO of Oxfordshire Youth, echoed these sentiments; “We need to focus on spaces being accessible and inclusive for all young people to thrive. The world needs to catch up with our digitally native, ethically minded generation who are conscious of the lack of equity, equality and inclusion in our society. Inequality has the biggest impact on our young people. We need to create safe spaces – digital and physical – , where young people can connect, have a sense of belonging and be themselves. This is when growth and skill development can be at their best.”

Safe spaces are key; it’s the best way in which to provide the desperate support and care needed for our young people.  It got me thinking – what options do young people have in Oxfordshire? Have they seen an increase in the numbers attending creative lessons since the pandemic?

Don’t cancel art!

The first person I wanted to speak to was Jessie Whealy, of Jessie’s Art Shed – a creative teaching space launched in 2015. It has recently expanded and now has two locations; Eynsham and Yarnton, and we talked about how issues around stifling creativity can stem from a young age, and she wants that to change;

“My hope for the future is that schools stop cutting art-based subjects. It’s so important for children and young people to have a chance to explore. For those who are not academically successful in traditional subjects like maths or chemistry, they need the arts to help them develop alongside their peers”.

Jessies Art Shed Eynsham
Young artists at work at Jessie's Art Shed in Eynsham

Ajaye Hunn-Phillips is the co-founder of The Project PT, which was born out of a desire to show  businesses can be both profitable and do fantastic things in the community.

Ajaye says “the work we do with young people will always have an individual effect on them, however the most common thing we hear from their teachers or social workers is an improvement in their self-confidence; from attending more lessons, building better relationships with their families or decreasing criminal activity. Exercise and movement has a profound effect on our mood and the view we have of ourselves. Improving these two things will lead to better life choices.”

The Project PT Oxford youth work
Boxing at The Project PT

Supporting all young people

I also reached out to two organisations in the county that are focusing their efforts specifically on the disabled community. Yellow Submarine (you may know their amazing cafe near Oxford train station) aims to support people with additional needs to live life to the full.

Anna Cheetham, co-director, said; “All young people deserve to have a voice; to be included within and contribute to society. With wellbeing and good mental health at the forefront of people’s minds, young people need early intervention and support to ensure that they are seen and heard.”

Yellow Submarine Oxford
Young people at Yellow Submarine

Film Oxford is part charity, part production team, part training – and currently runs two project strands for young people – iCreative focuses on creation of new work across all forms of media, with access to exhibiting in galleries, museums or pop-up venues.. The second is the BFI Film Academy – an accredited national flagship programme aiming to get young people into the film industry. Although the process is competitive and places are limited, Film Oxford manage to bring on board 20 young people, aged 16-19, and run the course outside of term time so it’s manageable around school. 

For both, Film Oxford focuses on attracting local young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or marginalised communities, something Tess Taylor, director of Tap Social Movement also encourages in her business;

“Our county has some of both the richest and the poorest wards in the UK** and the disparity between them is astounding. Tap Social is all about inclusivity – focusing our work on providing employment and community for people who might otherwise be excluded from both.” 

Tap Social Oxford
The Tap Social team in 2018

But it’s not all good news. Imran Mirza, lead practitioner in emotional and mental health at charity One-Eighty, has found that there has been a change creatively in young people, and explains,

“The young people I speak to have experienced a discrepancy between an increased urge to pursue creative interests and additional barriers to accessing this. The pandemic was a big cause in the surge in gaming addiction and online interactions which many young people find difficult to re-balance and this impacts mental health in huge ways – to  the point of non-attendance at school in some cases and the pandemic also created the physical barrier to gathering with restrictions and social distancing, affecting behavioural expression. These issues, compounded with the lack of arts and youth group funding creates a multi-track process which works in opposition to the creative urge.”

Although non profit organisations are going through a funding crisis, there are still some fantastic opportunities in our county to support and promote creative outlets for young people. Oxfordshire Youth have a young-person led podcast Are You Listening?, the Youth Awards, and various programmes running in and out of schools all year round. There’s also smaller organisations like House of Fun, founded by Jake Motion,

“For lots of children, the return to school after home-learning was a difficult transition. We identified play as an opportunity to encourage social and neurological development in young people, so trained all staff in this area with the aim of facilitating high-quality play each day at all our camps, alongside our activities programme. There is a mountain of research into the benefits of play for young people of all ages, and I was so pleased to see the training being put into practice in a really positive way at our recent summer camps.”

House of Fun Oxford
Halloween creations at House of Fun

Modern Art Oxford hired a Curator of Creative Learning a few years ago, to focus on outreach and encouraging creativity in young people.

I spoke to Sara Lowes about the work she does, “For us, encouraging young people to travel into the city, enjoy their independence, and use us as a social space is the most important. We’re always interested to hear from young people if they think we should be doing something differently in our programme, and hopefully this open invitation creates a space where young people know that we’re a space for them –  and that they can influence and change our programme with their own ideas. It’s brilliant when we see our projects bring young people together from different areas of Oxfordshire and new friendships are made.”

Zahra Haji Fath Ali Tehrani, director of YWMP (Young Women’s Music Project) told me that young people have had to think outside of the box, and she has seen more music being created online. This isn’t all bad because it means young people who have gone to university or moved away from the county can still access some of the projects that YWMP organises.

Along with the others I spoke to, Zahra is worried about the short term, “I just want  young people to have the basics this winter. I hope they can follow whatever journey they desire – and don’t feel limited in what they want to do”.

Having access to creative opportunities is important for young people. Research has shown that youth groups such as YWMP or venues like Project PT can help reduce crime rate. Organisations like Film Oxford, Modern Art Oxford and House of Fun allow learning in a different style, which in itself helps young people showcase how they are feeling or what they’re thinking, in a safe environment. 

As Pauline and Paula, youth workers at Oxfordshire Targeted Youth Support Service so eloquently put;

“Young people are tomorrow’s adults and our hope is that the future enables them to work together, to be provided with opportunities to grow, and thrive no matter what adversity they experience. Young people are the leaders of today and our hope is that the door is for them to lead us into the future.”

Ultimately, it’s about community and shared understanding. Everyone I spoke to had the same hopes and wants for young people; to have the access they deserve, whether it’s through art, music, sport or anything in between. As a mother to toddlers, I for one can’t wait to get them involved in these amazing opportunities when they’re old enough.

*Data Insights Report from Kooth, a digital mental health care service


Ruba Asfahani

About the writer

Ruba Asfahani is a marketing consultant, working mainly with social enterprises and charities in Oxfordshire.

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