A little knowledge

The onset of mental health difficulties during adolescence is
confusing and frightening. But the greatest barriers to action are
perceived stigma and embarrassment. In a survey by mental health
charity Mind, 55 per cent of young people said that if they had a
mental health difficulty, they would not want anyone to know about

Such findings account for the level of isolation and exclusion from
society experienced by many people with mental health difficulties.
Only 13 per cent of people with such difficulties are in paid
employment, a lower figure than any other group with a

Research by the Young Adult Learners Partnership (Yalp) has shown
that the learning and skills sector can give young adults the
chance to reintegrate and achieve their potential. Projects such as
Routes, in Derby, and Insight, in Plymouth, have achieved excellent
results in developing confidence and self-esteem, and nudge young
adults towards independent living. But such schemes are few.

So Yalp is aiming to raise the profile of learning provision for
young adults with mental health difficulties and to demonstrate to
policy makers and providers the need to implement effective
learning programmes. An important feature of this work is in
identifying the factors that contribute to success.

A key principle underpinning successful learning provision is a
flexible approach focused on the needs of individual learners.
Young adults with mental health difficulties are not a homogeneous
group. Although they may share common experiences and concerns, the
range and severity of the difficulties they encounter are vast, and
their personal support mechanisms vary.

Individual learning plans and targets, combined with a range of
activities and an approach that gives young people a sense of
empowerment about what, when and how they learn, appear to be most
effective in meeting the sometimes unpredictable needs of those
with mental health difficulties. The process of identifying the
needs of individual learners should be carried out with, rather
than for, young people as they are the experts on how they are
feeling and what type of learning will work for them.

However, flexible practice must be underpinned by flexible funding.
Many practitioners have expressed concern that funding mechanisms
do not take account of the needs of learners with mental health
difficulties. Funding that is tied to qualification-based outcomes
and targets and regular uninterrupted attendance is often
unrealistic and will effectively prevent learners with mental
health difficulties from accessing provision.

Although some young people with mental health difficulties are
motivated by accreditation, others are not, and funders must
recognise the fuller range of benefits derived from learning, even
though they may be more difficult to measure than conventional

The experience and personal qualities of staff are also crucial. At
one of the projects visited during the research, all the teaching
staff had personal experience of mental health difficulties.

The learners appeared to respond well to the level of empathy and
understanding that these staff can bring to the project. They also
provide positive role models of people that have learned to cope
with mental health difficulties and now lead full and active lives
rather than the negative images of them that are often represented
in the media.

Partnerships and cross-sector working play an important role in
engaging learners who may be particularly isolated or difficult to
reach due to the mental health difficulties they experience.

Local networks of health and learning providers and links with
community mental health teams and other medical professionals can
result in young adults gaining quick access to the full range of
services they need.

Practitioners should find out about local forums, such as networks
of practitioners involved in mental health provision, and
contribute to them. The benefits will include smooth transitions
for young people, knowledge and information sharing, effective use
of resources and a common approach to problems.

Finally, simple measures, such as the way in which a project is
advertised and the atmosphere created, are important factors in
developing a learning programme that will reach and engage young
adults with mental health difficulties.

The Routes project describes itself as “a course for young people
16-25 who may feel stressed and negative about things. Routes
offers chilled activities and a place to make friends”. Activities
include informal chats over coffee and taster sessions where young
people can meet each other. To minimise the stress of starting a
new programme learners are also allowed to take a companion.

The Yalp research has resulted in a book, published in April, and
an interactive website. Looking Forward to Thursdays: Effective
Learning for Young Adults with Mental Health Difficulties
available free to practitioners involved in the delivery of
learning for young people with mental health difficulties. The
website, www.lookingforward.org.uk,
which should be operating from this week provides:

  • Information and statistics about the learning needs of young
    adults with mental health difficulties.
  • Good practice case studies.
  • Useful contacts for further information about learning and
    mental health.
  • A discussion forum so that practitioners can share good
    practice, raise questions and interact with each other.
  • A resource section, where practitioners can submit and share
    details of effective practice.

There are many testimonies to illustrate the benefits that
effective learning provision can have on the lives of young adults
with mental health difficulties. The sense of achievement,
increased confidence and self-esteem that are cited can only give
this group a sense of inclusiveness in society. Who knows, it may
even encourage the launch of more projects.

– For a copy of Looking Forward to Thursdays or for
further information contact Linda Smith, 0116 2044258.

Nicola Aylward is project officer, Young Adult Learners

“The course made me feel good”   

  • “The course I am doing allows me to learn new things and to
    build my self-confidence. It’s good being around other young people
    who have had similar experiences to me as I can talk without
    prejudice and I don’t feel pressured. I wish I’d known about this
    course sooner.” (Learner) 
  •  “At times it has been quite painful reflecting on my past, but
    through this course I have learned to understand myself more and to
    challenge myself in a gentle way. It has made me feel good about
    myself and I now realise that I do have something to offer to
    society.” (Learner)  
  • “Young adults with mental health difficulties can benefit
    immensely from an educational programme. Initially this could be
    the reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Setting up a
    routine, building confidence and making new friends gives a purpose
    in life, thus helping states of mind and gradually leading to new
    achievement.” (Practitioner)   


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