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Conclusion of my last two and a half years at Isle Listen

September 12, 2021  |  by George Blackwell

After nearly two and half years applying myself to the intricate issue of mental wellbeing in young people, there are many lessons I’ve learnt and assumptions I’ve had to re-evaluate. As I’m departing the charity during September to restart my studies in the UK, this article feels like a review of what I’ve seen and the progress we’ve made since the start of the Isle Listen charitable initiative:

1. Understanding what’s normal 

Through what many have described as a ‘mental health epidemic’, a disproportionate amount of my work has been spent helping young people understand what’s normal and okay to experience in respect to challenging emotions. 

The butterflies they feel at the prospect of speaking in front of their class?

That’s normal.  

The sadness they feel when they’ve been left out by their friends?

I’d feel the exact same way.  

The frustration and anger they feel when they don’t get the grades they worked so hard for? 

I’d be more concerned if you didn’t care at all!  

Are all these situations things we enjoy experiencing? Absolutely not. But unfortunately, they’re going to play a part in our experiences of school and life and learning to manage these feelings in ways that are both constructive and appropriate is vital to see young people thrive in school and their early adult life. 

2. Consistency is the key 

Mental wellbeing is not a ‘one stop shop’ or a quick fix and needs to be drip fed to young people from infancy through to early adulthood. At times, working with the older bracket of ‘young people’, it feels like the ideas that you’re presenting to them are so contrasting to their current views that it’s going to take more than a few conversations for them to reconsider their current way of thinking. The solution to this? Start early, have consistency in the messages that all young people are exposed too, and give them the opportunity to collectively buy in to and live by these messages and principles.  

3. Culture matters – Prioritising wellbeing over performance ultimately improves performance 

The culture we live and breathe at Isle Listen is one that prioritises wellbeing. We’re given flexibility so we can perform in our individual roles effectively, but not at the expense of a work life balance that keeps us happy. It’s a culture that invests in us as individuals to see us grow and develop, whether that’s with CPD opportunities or formal qualifications. It’s a culture where we feel comfortable sharing life’s grievances as ultimately, what’s going on outside the office plays a huge part in the person that walks in through the door each morning. The resistance to creating similar cultures in both education and workplaces generally comes from the concept that in giving people freedom, these boundaries will be stretched to the limit and performance will suffer. 

What I’ve observed in the last 2 years is completely contrary to these assumptions. Staff take pride in their work, they feel empowered, trusted, and valued. Ultimately meaning that when push comes to shove, everyone comes together to exceed our targets and continue to grow the ways that we support the community. It might be a touch idealistic, but I do think this is translatable to educational settings, at least to some degree. Creating cultures where students are trusted to work, feel empowered to make their own choices, and can be honest about their feelings and emotions is one that will eventually lead to well rounded, supportive, and caring young adults leaving education and moving into our community.  

4. School staff are on our side  

Prior to the start of the initiative, it would be easy to stand on the periphery of the issue of wellbeing in young people and point fingers, pushing more responsibility onto those who are already employed to provide pastoral support. However, once you see the juggling act that’s expected of school staff, you soon see a group of individuals that are entirely invested in seeing young people supported. Unfortunately, most have neither the time nor the specific training to give them the confidence to tackle the issues they are facing daily. 

There’s no short-term solution to this. The systems and processes within schools need to be re-evaluated and significant investment is needed. At present, it feels like we’re stuck trying to put out the fires that will continue to grow in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, with organisations like Isle Listen, we are sensing a change in tide and the opportunity to make schools a place where both young people and teachers can thrive. 

5. Collaborative working is the way forward  

One thing we’re blessed with on the Isle of Man is a passionate and enthusiastic community, itching to help others and see the provision of support for our community grow. It is imperative on a small island like ours, that statutory and third sector organisations work in collaboration. The goal for all these organisations is ultimately the same, to see the mental health and wellbeing of our young people supported. Creating a structure where organisations are given the opportunity to work together, complement each-others work, and ultimately, make more of an impact. 

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