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Young people are saving the world - but is it good for them?

07 February 2020

Should we be encouraged by the new wave of passionate young health campaigners, or have adults just let them down? And what can you do to help? Journalist Jo Waters reports.

Greta Thunberg has made the world sit up and listen. The 17-year-old Swedish student organised the global school strikes last year (then just 16) via her three million-plus Twitter followers to highlight the very real and imminent threats posed by climate change. She has been hailed an icon and named as Time magazine’s person of the year. And it turns out Greta is not the only young person trying to make the world take more positive action.  

Others may not have achieved her icon status just yet, but there is a growing movement of teenage activists passionately campaigning to improve public health. In the UK, teenage campaigners seem to have multiplied as the so-called ‘Greta effect’ percolates down. And some of them even pre-date her.  

They’re not only campaigning on climate change, but on all matters of public health, from mental health to poverty. They are young and social media savvy but also, crucially, keen on taking direct action and turning up in person too. A force to be reckoned with, and one that politicians ignore at their peril.

 

Who are the teenage trailblazers?

Amika George from London was 17 years oldwhen she began her #FreePeriods campaign in 2017. Her online petition called on the government to fund free sanitary towels and tampons for girls from low-income families.

That same year, she wrote an article for Community Practitioner, concluding that: ‘Girls should not have to choose between their education and their period, and it’s time for the government to consign period poverty to history. If we all shout enough, they will have to listen!’

And listen they did. Via 271,0000 signatures and a 2000-strong demonstration in Downing Street, the government announced it would offer free sanitary products to all primary and secondary schools and colleges in England from early 2020 (Department of Education, 2019). Wales followed suit, while Scotland had already introduced the scheme in 2018 (Scottish Government, 2019; Welsh Government, 2019).

Primary school age children shouldn’t be so worried about the world that they fear it won’t be there when they grow up

Amika continues to campaign to end period poverty globally and to reduce the stigma around periods with the hashtag #FreePeriodsStories.

There are hundreds more young people like Amika in the UK. And they’re campaigning on a wide range of pressing issues, including female genital mutilation (FGM), foodbanks, sepsis, knife crime, autism, cyber bullying and climate change.

Ellen Jones, now 21, is a writer and activist campaigning on LGBTQ+ rights, mental health, autism and gender. In 2017, she was named Stonewall’s young campaigner of the year after running successful campaigns tackling LGBTQ+ inequality in schools and online, and in 2018 won the first-ever MTV EMA Generation Change award.

Sisters Amy and Ella Meek, now 16 and 14, are the founders of Kids Against Plastic, a campaign against single-use plastic. They’ve picked up over 60,000 pieces of single-use plastic litter (and developed an app to log it), given their own TEDx talk, and gathered a team of children around the UK who are tackling plastic pollution.

And Lewis Bedford (now 20) and Bella Lack, 17, are both youth ambassadors for Born Free, campaigning to protect wildlife. Lewis has also started his own charity.

Fahma Mohamed was only 14 when she started a campaign to end FGM. She was later praised by UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon and in 2016, aged 19, awarded a doctorate by Bristol University for her campaigning work. Her campaigning contributed to a requirement for health and social care professionals, social workers and teachers in England and Wales to report known cases of FGM in girls under the age of 18 to the police (Prime Minister’s Office, 2019). The list of young people campaigning in the UK on public health issues goes on.


‘I feel truly supported’
Beth Bretherton, 22, in Wigan, explains how the RSPH Level 2 Award for Young Health Champions has helped her overcome her illness, and to support other young people.

‘Diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome at the age of 12, I’ve always battled some kind of stigma. Whether that’s the stigma surrounding chronic fatigue syndrome or poor mental health due to isolation, I feel very passionately about sending out the right message and making sure people understand the facts that can help them.

‘Through the health promotion part of the course, I designed and produced my own mental health booklet in which I focused on de-stigmatising mental health by highlighting positive ways you could support someone going through a hard time.

‘I came up with ways you could emotionally or practically help someone suffering when they are at their lowest point. I hope to spread the view that mental health can be improved if people feel able to support those around them – if they feel like they can help, rather than feeling like it’s hopeless and doing nothing.

‘Carrying out my campaign has made me so much more confident and has given me a subject I can passionately talk about without feeling shy. My self-esteem continues to improve, and I’ve never felt as supported as I do by the tutors of the course, and the RSPH.’


Can youth activism influence public health?

If the examples above are anything to go by, the messages of young activists are being heard loud and clear.

‘We are literally seeing a new breed of public health champions emerging,’ says Aaron Mansfield, health and wellbeing project manager (children and young people), at the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

‘Consulting with young people has definitely changed the way we campaign on health issues for that age group. The time has never been more right for this.’

The RSPH runs a Young Health Champions scheme for people aged between 14 and 24, in schools, colleges and young offender institutes, where they can gain a qualification in public health by choosing an issue to highlight and raise awareness about.

‘Around 3000 people have become Young Health Champions with the RSPH in the past five years,’ says Aaron. ‘We have tutors and mentors who run the programme but it’s very much up to young people what issues they choose to highlight.’

Young Health Champions who stand out include Joseph Roberts from Wigan, who chose to make a deeply moving film about the death of his sister Jemma-Louise, who died at just 13. Joseph’s aim was to spread awareness of sepsis and its symptoms; Jemma-Louise died from sepsis after developing toxic shock syndrome, believed to have been related to tampon use.

Other Young Health Champions have campaigned on issues as diverse as obesity and foodbanks.

Interestingly, Aaron says young people’s concerns have also changed, with mental health now most prevalent. The constant pressure of social media has also been flagged as a concern in work by the RSPH.

‘This is what convinced us to launch our Scroll Free September campaign in 2018 to encourage people to take a break from all their social media accounts for 30 days,’ says Aaron. And it didn’t just benefit their mental health (RSPH, 2019): ‘The campaign went on to influence public policy, as some of the young people were invited to speak to MPs at the All-Parliamentary Group for Social Media.’

The charity YoungMinds is also encouraging young people to become involved in campaigns, with benefits to young people themselves and to the weight of the message conveyed. Sarah Faithfull, youth engagement manager at YoungMinds, says: ‘Most of our activists have personal experience of mental health problems, and many say that campaigning for change has a direct benefit to their mental health. Working together with other people who’ve been through the same thing, feeling like you have a voice, and using your own experience to help others can boost your self-esteem and make a real difference to society.

‘Most recently, young activists have been vital to the success of our Act Early campaign [regarding mental health], which saw a group present a 70,000-signature petition to the three main political parties in England, calling on them to make early intervention a priority in their election manifestos.’

Campaigning and activism sets children up with a lifelong habit of caring for others

Why are young people doing it?

Campaigning with the support of charities is one thing, especially when it directly helps the wellbeing of young people, but youth activism also raises a few questions. First of all, why are young people having to act on public health issues? Is it encouraging and inspiring or cause for concern that adults aren’t doing enough themselves to effect change?

Sharon White, independent public health nurse consultant, says it’s definitely a bit of both: ‘In our experience young people are, in the main, becoming more vocal. This in part is due to empowerment through social media, a keen eye on children’s rights and, in part, policy moves towards improved engagement, co-production 
and self-care.’

Research carried out by the London School of Economics (LSE) among the political campaign group Momentum in 2017 showed young people in the organisation were extremely savvy users of social media (Banaji and Mejias, 2017). ‘The young people in the digital media team were extremely effective at translating online support into offline support,’ says Sam Mejiias, an LSE research fellow. ‘They used social media in the same way younger people do normally – posting a dozen times a day with memes and funny one-minute videos.’ In turn, he says, this persuaded young people who supported Labour to travel to marginal seats to canvass.

However, Sam also shares other research by LSE conducted in 40 youth focus groups around the UK (Mejias and Banaji, 2017). They found ‘profound disillusionment’ with mainstream politics, and support for a more progressive agenda that they didn’t see being offered by political parties.

‘Young people were telling us they didn’t like the direction the country was going in,’ says Sam, also co-author of new book Youth active citizenship in Europe: ethnographies of participation.* ‘They talked about inequality, fairness, justice and tolerance and people just not being in it for themselves and caring about others.

‘I believe this might be why single-issue campaigning on issues such as climate change seems to have taken off among young people. Climate change campaigning is essentially about fairness and justice – the younger generation see it as an issue that is going to affect them far more than it will older people.’

However, Sharon adds: ‘While it is laudable that we have emerging child activists such as Greta, as adults and professionals we still have a duty to also represent such issues. As public health practitioners we also have a duty to advocate, agitate and ensure issues such as climate change, clean air, FGM and period poverty are firmly on political agendas, if we are truly working to prevent, promote and protect the health and wellbeing of children and young people.’


‘I’ve made a difference’
John Bolt, 18, a YoungMinds activist, describeshow he has contributed to awareness of mental health problems in young people.  

‘The difference I’ve been able to make as a YoungMinds Activist is incredible, and I’ve made a difference everywhere from educating at local schools to speaking at summits in Downing Street. I know for a fact I wouldn’t have believed this was possible before I became an activist.

‘Young people are incredibly vulnerable when struggling with their mental health and they’ve had enough. The mental health epidemic is a nationwide struggle. I believe that in the battle against this epidemic YoungMinds is leading the charge and creating a better world for young people all across the UK.’


Can young people cope with the pressures?

David Munday, lead professional officer (mental health) at Unite, says he can’t really see a downside of young people becoming involved in politics. ‘As a health visitor I would encourage everyone to be involved in politics because ultimately the world we inhabit is affected by politics and decision-makers at government, international and local level. Politics decide what services will open and close. Everyone should have a voice in that, including young people. In the health service, we’ve seen some positive developments as a result of user involvement. And that has involved campaigning by individuals, including young people.’

It’s important to note however that not all young campaigners have an easy time of it when plunged into the public eye. Greta Thunberg has endured abuse from climate change deniers and personal remarks about her autism. For example, TV personality Jeremy Clarkson called her a ‘weird Swede’ (Wynne, 2019).

Ellen Jones also faced negativity as a young campaigner. Writing in the Huffington Post, she said: ‘As a young autistic activist, I have experienced first-hand some of the criticisms Thunberg is facing, albeit on a far smaller scale’ (Jones, 2019). She also explains how she has struggled to clearly convey her message when interacting with media and that her bluntness and refusal to pander or make the issues palatable has resulted in her being literally and figuratively shouted down.

Dave highlights that it can be difficult for young people who speak out about issues, particularly mental health. ‘It’s not popular and can be a lonely place to be sometimes, and it’s not pleasant when you come in for criticism on social media. But I wouldn’t say young people shouldn’t have a voice because of this.’

But are there concerns about how campaigning, particularly solo like Ellen and Greta, may impact on young people? Is it too much responsibility for young shoulders to bear and how can health professionals help?

 

The right support

Psychologist Linda Blair believes youth activism is to be applauded. ‘Campaigning and activism sets them up with a lifelong habit of caring for other people which is so important. I think they should be encouraged and supported.’

However, she thinks support is needed too. ‘I’m not saying they’re not capable, most will be – but support does need to be available to them, either from parents or health professionals such as school nurses, if they seek it out – they should know it’s there at the very least.’

Sharon adds: ‘Some young activists are targeted with abuse and ridicule for their efforts. Adults, including health professionals, have a responsibility to guide and support them through education such as digital literacy, bullying and also to help implement strategies to prevent and respond should this happen.’

She also says politics is a must in public health for it to remain high on the agenda. ‘Outcomes and life expectancy are declining, therefore there has, in some ways, never been a more important time to support and combine our efforts with that of our inspirational child activists.’

Support seems the way forward. Dr Kate Mason, clinical psychologist with Roots Psychology Group, based in Worcestershire, says she often sees children and young people in her clinics suffering from anxiety because they’re worrying about what they see on the news. She still sees the positives, with the right support and guidance.

‘Health and environmental activism can be a positive experience for young people,’ says Kate. ‘At this age, young people are developing a sense of self and exploring how they can fit into the world and feel a sense of purpose. Through being actively involved, they can feel part of a community and begin to form their identity, which gives a sense of empowerment. If they feel passion for an issue and it resonates, it gives them a voice and helps build their self-confidence, resilience and self-esteem.’

 

Your role

‘The key role adults play here [in youth activism] is to ensure involvement is age appropriate,’ says Kate. ‘Primary school age children shouldn’t be getting so worried about the world that they fear it won’t be there when they grow up – children perhaps could be encouraged to do smaller but equally meaningful things that contribute to making a difference, such as picking up litter or taking bottles to recycling.

‘I think it’s down to us as adults – including parents, health professionals and teachers, to support children in their decisions and how to talk about the consequences of their actions in a curious way.

On a practical level, Kate says: ‘Adults can support [children] at the same time as keeping a watchful eye so that they aren’t getting involved inappropriately. Encourage their enthusiasm without patronising them and facilitate problem-solving to allow them to make the right decisions.’    

Dave adds: ‘Young people’s views are as valid as anyone’s else’s and they should be heard. It’s a lot for anyone to handle at any age but young people don’t need the permission of the older generation.’

And so what is the role of community practitioners? ‘I think as health professionals we can give them the information on where they might get support rather than push them in a direction that’s inappropriate,’ says Dave. ‘That [supportive route] might be a relevant health charity or a trade union for instance, an organisation where they might find allies.

‘Ultimately though, I think we as a society have to learn about how to disagree with people without being disrespectful.’

So as well as adults working with young people, society at large has a role to play, as is often the way. Young people clearly have an important voice, and one that should be free to be expressed, and heard. But adult responsibilities, both in supporting young activists, and in advocating for change directly, should not be forgotten.


Resources: 

  • Working alongside charities seems a good place to direct young people towards for guidance and support. For example, YoungMinds activists at bit.ly/YM_speaking_up  
  • The RSPH Young Health Champions Award is at bit.ly/RSPH_speaking_up

Learn more about some of the young UK activists mentioned in this article:


References:

Banaji S, Mejias S. (2017) Story of a vote unforetold: young people, youth activism and the UK general election. See: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/polis/2017/06/27/story-of-a-vote-unforetold-young-people-youth-activism-and-the-uk-general-election/ (accessed 9 December 2019).

Department for Education. (2019) Free sanitary products in all primary schools. See: gov.uk/government/news/free-sanitary-products-in-all-primary-schools (accessed 11 December 2019).

George A. (2017) Girl powered. See: https://www.communitypractitioner.co.uk/opinion/2017/07/girl-powered-0 (accessed 18 December 2019).

Jones E. (2019) Given Greta Thunberg's bullying, is it any wonder so few women share that they're autistic? See: huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/greta-thunberg-autism_uk_5d6d1930e4b0cdfe0573695a (accessed 19 December 2019).

Mejias S, Banaji S. (2017) UK Youth Perspectives and Priorities for Brexit Negotiations. See: http://www.lse.ac.uk/media-and-communications/assets/documents/research/A-Better-Brexit-for-Young-People.pdf (accessed 11 December).

Prime Minister’s Office. (2019) End FGM Campaign. See:  pointsoflight.gov.uk/end-fgm-campaign/ (accessed 19 December 2020).

RSPH. (2019) Look after you self-ie. See: rsph.org.uk/about-us/news/look-after-your-self-ie.html (accessed 19 December 2020).

Scottish Government. (2019) Free sanitary products for students. See: gov.scot/news/free-sanitary-products-for-students (accessed 11 December 2019).

Welsh Government. (2019) Period dignity: Thousands to benefit from multi-million pound funding for schools. See: gov.wales/period-dignity-thousands-benefit-multi-million-pound-funding-schools (accessed 11 December 2019).

Wynne A. (2019) Climate convert Jeremy Clarkson calls Greta Thunberg, 16, 'a stupid idiot' and a 'weird Swede with a bad temper' for offering no solutions to climate change while 'sailing across the ocean in a diesel-powered yacht. See: dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7741719/Jeremy-Clarkson-brands-Greta-Thunberg-16-stupid-idiot-weird-Swede-bad-temper.html (accessed 11 December).

 

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