Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege to be part of an amazing project called MH2K, putting young people at the heart of mental health policy in Oldham, Greater Manchester.
Briefly, the project was this:
- First, twenty Citizen Researchers from very different backgrounds volunteered to interrogate mental health facts and figures, research and views to identify the top five mental health challenges facing young people in Oldham;
- Then, they designed and led 42 roadshows focused on these challenges and their potential solutions, comprised of quizzes, multimedia, discussions and debates, deliberating with nearly 600 other young people from all walks of Oldham life;
- They synthesised their findings and worked on an equal footing with MH2K’s advisors – people whose jobs are in mental health service delivery, policy, research and engagement – to come up with joint recommendations for the future of mental health in Oldham;
- Finally, they presented their work to a group of 85 people from 27 organisations at a big celebration event (and many more, beyond, online).
You can read all about the project’s methods, outcomes, recommendations and evaluation here.
Here, I want to focus on why I think the project was so successful (and yes, I’m biased). Here’s a clue: it’s all about the people.
Agents of change, changing agencies
Creating Citizen Researchers as agents of change was a pivotal part of MH2K’s success. A little apprehensive and nervous to begin with, these young researchers flourished because of the project: they learnt more about mental health, they put their faith in some of their ideas about how to combat issues such as stigma, they grew in confidence; with guidance, they developed presentation, listening and basic research skills. Some found that the project helped their recovery following a mental health challenge; others chose to pursue a career in mental health care because of the project. All of them enjoyed themselves; all of them became agents of change.
Importantly, now that MH2K is over, Citizen Researchers will not be left disappear into the ether, nor to teeter on the edge of change. At the outset, Citizen Researchers expressed high expectations for tangible change to occur and for continued involvement beyond the end of the project. MH2K listened: some Researchers will continue to work with Oldham policy-making, charitable and civic organisations, to drive MH2K’s recommendations forward and to shift the ways of Oldham’s agencies to become more inclusive of, and led by, youth.
Diverse young people talking to diverse young people
MH2K’s Citizen Researchers were a truly mixed bunch of 14-25 year olds: Muslim, Christian and atheist, of diverse ethnic heritage, sexualities, learning abilities, and mental health experiences. All shared enquiring minds and a passion for mental health. Young people who took part in the roadshows learnt about mental health and felt listened to too; some changed their beliefs. They opened up to the Citizen Researchers because of who they were: young, their peers, from similar backgrounds. Conversation was informed, frank, and free. Such honesty can be hard to come by when we try to engage people about a difficult topic in a relatively short space of time. But MH2K’s Citizen Researchers nailed it. And Oldham’s mental health horizon is now all the better for it.
Not just diverse young people working together
MH2K assembled a pretty impressive panel of people from varied civic, charitable, healthcare and research organisations to act as advisors for the project and to work hand in hand with the project team and the young people. Because of this process, MH2K’s resulting recommendations benefit from strong buy-in and being approached from all angles. The professional partners in the project report stronger existing collaborations as a result of MH2K, as well as new connections.
A brilliant team
Guided by thinking and methods in youth work, youth leadership and deliberative democracy, the project team were thorough and inclusive from beginning to end. They instilled trust and respect; they worked with empathy, gave space and encouraged expression from others. Importantly, they were able to do so because they planned and appropriately budgeted for a detailed process. Having the commensurate investment of time and energy, as well as knowledge and skills to facilitate engagement was crucial to MH2K’s success.
Co-production or what?
I’ve been asked if MH2K was a co-production project and whether it empowered people. Judge for yourselves. What we did might be called co-creation, co-production, participatory policy-making, participatory decision-making, experience-based co-design, peer-to-peer communication, empowerment. For me, it reinforced the value of lots of different people working together towards a clear and relevant common goal. I’m so proud of the project and all the people involved in it, whether it’s co-production or not.