Dr Nick Barnes: Engaging young people in a dialogue about mental health through drama


Dr Nick Barnes has been one of our primary bio-medical project mentors for I AM BEAST.  We asked him to share his thoughts on why theatre can provide an avenue for discussing mental health with young people.

The last couple of years has seen an explosion in interest and awareness about young people’s mental health. Whichever media outlet one chooses, it is impossible to not be aware that there is an emerging crisis regarding the levels of support and provision available for young people across the country, with many services being seen as “not fit for purpose” – to quote Norman Lamb (MP). The Future in Mind document produced by the task force set up by the Government to look into this issue has offered considerable hope – with its emphasis on improved access and earlier, more preventative practice – but the alarm bells continue to ring when reports suggest that some of the money provided for local transformation plans is failing to reach the front line. Schools remain desperate for support, whilst children, young people and families struggle to make sense of the waiting lists and delays that potentially exacerbate their difficulties and needs.

It is within this context of unmet need, and a genuine desire to find ways of supporting young people earlier, in a more preventative and resilience-building approach, that this highly innovative and creative partnership has evolved. This day of youth engagement and participation is seeking to generate a highly innovative way of enabling a dialogue about young people’s mental health through the forum of performance and drama. At the Pleasance theatre in Islington, on the 22nd March, a day has been developed that aims to create a space, through an experience of theatre and drama, for young people to have their voices genuinely heard – and acted upon – when looking to make a contribution to the current discourse about the crisis in young people’s mental health services and support. Secondary school students from across the London borough of Haringey have been invited to participate in an event that looks to be both engaging and empowering, so that by the end of the day, the young people involved will have a greater awareness about mental health and emotional wellbeing, but also will have been involved in the co-development of a charter that states what they believe needs to be done and be available.

Whilst there are many positive aspirations within the Future in Mind paper, which have then been built on within local transformation plans, it is often difficult to articulate a genuine voice of young people in helping to co-design services that meet their needs. Many services have experts by experience – be they children, young people or parents who have experience services – involved in assisting with the development of their local offer, but it can be difficult to access the thoughts and opinions of those young people who do not seek help and/or access support. This event on the 22nd March looks to offer a genuine opportunity to young people from within Haringey, who are not necessarily linked to services, to work together in workshops and explore what they believe may be useful and beneficial for themselves, their peers, their families, within their schools and across their communities.

I AM BEAST has been developed by the drama company Sparkle and Dark and charts the journey of an adolescent girl who is struggling – both inwardly and with those around her – following the tragic loss of her mother. The play offers a representation of the dialogue and discourse that we have both with and within ourselves, as well as with those around us, whilst holding on to the uncertainties and insecurities of adolescence that are further impacted upon by this experience of bereavement. This piece of drama will be shown in the afternoon, and provide a framework for the day to assist young people and guests, in thinking about the distress of one particular young person, but to then consider what could be provided not only for her, but also for others.

The 22nd March event therefore offers many things, but all with a similar aim and objective. The use of drama provides the focus for the theme of emotional need and distress, but it also ensures that we can explore the impact on the individual and their family – an exploration that doesn’t need to become too personalised for the young people involved. But it also provides a platform for the young people to be able to develop their own ideas of what is needed to address the current crisis, and an audience where these ideas can be heard. The partnership involved in supporting Sparkle and Dark draws on a wealth of experience – from providing local mental health services through the local mental health trust, to Young Minds who campaign nationally on behalf of children, young people and parents, from Neuroscientist Kirstie Whittaker who has researched much about adolescent brain development, to the department of Psychology at University of East London who are providing the evaluation of the impact of this work, from the offer of the space at the Pleasance Theatre, to the provision of funding through the Wellcome Trust. This breadth of experience and expertise, however, counts for little when knowing how it feels to be a young person in a school, on the streets or on social media in this current climate. For this event is looking to hear the voices of these young people, talking about what is needed, and what they would like to see within their communities, but most importantly recognising that emotional support and emotional wellbeing are everybody’s business. That if we are to re-design and re-develop services for children and young people, then they need to be at the heart of this dialogue. After all, there should be “nothing about us, without us”.

Dr Nick Barnes (Haringey CAMHS, School of Psychology, University of East London)

Dr Nick Barnes is a Young People’s Psychiatrist who has worked with children, young people and families in the London Borough of Haringey for nearly 15 years at the Haringey Adolescent Outreach Team. He is also an Honorary Senior Lecturer at University College London within the department of Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology.


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