Devon teenagers inspire English schools with mental health resources

They are busy studying for GCSEs and A-levels but four teenagers from Devon have also found time to develop lesson plans, newsletters and videos on mental health that are being used by schools across England.

The teenagers, aged 14-16, were unable to find resources that they felt addressed the sort of issues they faced in voices that chimed with them and so decided to design their own.

They are tackling subjects ranging from the impact of lockdowns on young people to the importance of a good night’s sleep and how to deal with suicidal thoughts, seeking advice from adult experts but ultimately producing every aspect of the material themselves and making sure it is their voices that are heard.

Their group, Spark UK, has begun to attract national attention and has persuaded actors, sports stars and celebrities such as Jonny Wilkinson, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Steve Backshall to record messages for an online version of an advent calendar in which they talk about their own mental health.

Conor Warren, 15, the group’s founder, said the key was that all the resources were being produced by teenagers for teenagers. “We’ve come across a lot of organisations guided by adults,” he said. “We don’t know of others that are run by teenagers with no board of adults telling us what we can or can’t do.”

The group, who met at school in Ilfracombe and hold editorial meetings at Conor’s house sustained by pizza, are delighted that their material is being used in dozens of schools not just across Devon but as far away as Bristol, London and Lincolnshire.

They have produced lessons, newsletters and posters on topics such as confidence, self-worth, social anxiety and the stress that taking exams or following the news can bring. The resources are free. “We just want to do good,” said Conor. “We want to make a difference and help as many people as possible.”

The group takes advice from experts including Ask for Jake, a charity set up to help with issues such as drug and alcohol issues, self-harm and suicide after a young man in north Devon killed himself. For every piece of content, even “lighter” ones such as their gratitude topic, they consult with teachers and safeguarding experts.

Bridie Downing, 16, Spark UK’s head of content, said she had heard too often mental health problems being dismissed by adults as: “It’s their hormones.” She said she felt parents steered clear of their children’s mental health issues. “If they see their children struggling, they often blame themselves. We mustn’t shy away from problems. And teachers are under huge pressures and do not have the time or training to help young people.”

Bridie, who is studying for four A-levels and wants to be a therapist or work in social care, said she felt adults were often scared to talk about issues like suicide. “They think it will give people ideas.”

She said Spark UK wanted to tackle big issues but in a way that was not frightening or daunting. The teenagers are already thinking about how to stay relevant as they grow older, aware of the situation that they will need to find younger people to make sure they retain a voice to which their target audience can relate.

Joseph Carter, 14, head of written content, said the aim was to create a full curriculum for schools across the country. “We want to raise awareness of mental health and encourage young people to talk about their experiences,” he said. “We all have mental health and yet there still seems to be an old fashioned, unfair stigma surrounding it.”

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