Gerald Chifamba is one of our Trustees at YMCA St Paul’s Group. He welcomed the Duke of Sussex to a meeting at YMCA South Ealing on Wednesday 3 April, and chaired the discussion that took place with five Mental Health Champions. “The Duke of Sussex was passionate about the importance of speaking openly and frankly about mental health, and the role that peer support plays,” says Gerald.
The YMCA Mental Health Champions programme aims to improve the mental health of young people aged 11–21 and offers three key services: a peer support programme in schools and the community; key adult education and awareness workshops; and a counselling service.
“We agreed that for many young people experiencing mental health difficulties, it’s often about having someone you can go to. Someone to start talking about what’s going on and if necessary – be signposted to the help you need. This is a crucial first step before seeking any clinical support which is often over-subscribed with long waiting lists.”
Speaking about mental health
“We spoke about the challenges in schools and communities where teachers and other key workers may not have the necessary training and awareness to support young people going through mental health difficulties,” says Gerald.
“One of the Mental Health Champions shared her journey during her time at school and feeling misunderstood by the teachers. The journey turned full circle as she now returns to the school as a volunteer to offer support to students and educate teachers.
“We heard numerous compelling stories from the Mental Health Champions about their own mental health journey and how they are using that experience to support their peers. We briefly touched on some of the key drivers of poor mental health amongst young people and the Duke of Sussex pointed to the damaging effects of social media and gaming.
“In addition, across all the mental health champions projects we identified sleep deprivation as an emerging factor affecting the mental health of young people using our services. A key outcome of the discussion was the critical role peers play in supporting young people with their mental health. The shared experiences of peers not only means they can relate to what an individual may be going through, but they can normalise conversations about mental health removing the stigma often attached mental ill health.”
In 2014, Gerald led the Young Health Champions project for YMCA Coventry and Warwickshire. The project aimed to train young people aged 16-25 to deliver peer-to-peer support around mental health, drugs and alcohol, sexual health and physical activity based on the needs of the school/community. In addition, young health champions developed campaigns within their schools/colleges/youth clubs to increase awareness of health issues, signpost services and influence local decision-makers such as Clinical Commissioning Groups.
“Mental health quickly ascended as the key issue for young people in the county and become the focal point for much of the work,” says Gerald. “During school workshops, it would often transpire that up to a third of the young people in the classroom was on the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) waiting list. Not long after, YMCA England & Wales launched Mental Health Champions to fill the support gap left by CAMHS by offering free counselling services, peer-to-peer support and staff training.”
Gerald hopes that the discussion with the Duke of Sussex will lead to greater collaboration between Heads Together and YMCA.
“From a YMCA St Paul’s Group perspective, there’s an excellent opportunity to learn from the innovative projects and campaigns shared by the Mental Health Champions. As an organisation, we are well positioned to support the mental wellbeing of our beneficiaries across London through our housing, health and wellbeing centres and wider community work.”