The Health Foundation recently convened a series of workshops using a complex adaptive systems approach to explore influences on young people’s mental health. We spoke to Yannis Munro, Mental Health Advisor at The Prince’s Trust, who was involved in this work, about how the process is helping to map the web of connected issues which influence the mental health of young people. 

Why is it useful to try and map out the many influences on young people’s mental health? 

Systems mapping provides a way to create a picture of the many factors that are involved in influencing the mental health of young people. The output of the complex systems mapping process looks similar to a mind map, illustrating the different factors and the web of connections between these.

Lots of factors, both positive and negative, have an impact on young people’s mental health. The map includes all aspects of a young person’s development, from childhood and family, through education and first employment, as well as the social, environmental and personal factors that lead a young person to have the mental health that they have. 

As humans, we want to have a linear way of dealing with a problem, but actually this issue is so complex that it is anything but linear. The mapping process helps us to understand complexity and see the problem in a different way. 

What happened at the systems mapping workshop you attended at the Health Foundation? 

The workshop brought together people working in lots of different professions and areas, from people funding and commissioning services, to health professionals and people like me from the third sector. We also had some young people who were involved through the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) and The Prince’s Trust. In groups, we threw around questions and started to create a map of all the possible factors that contribute positively or negatively to young people’s mental health. We grouped factors by theme, and then drew connections to show interrelationships. 

Each group created a board showing our mental health map and we put them alongside each other to compare and learn from each team’s mapping. It helped us see what was important and highlight unique things that one team found and others didn’t. 

After the first workshop, the facilitator, Nick Cavill, had the tough job of creating an amalgamation of the three maps, and we came together again in a second workshop to give feedback and agree a final version.
Mapping out the breadth of the system overall really highlighted new areas where people could work together or fill gaps in support. It also emphasised the mismatch between the areas we fund and focus policy attention on, versus the much wider areas that influence young people’s mental health. That helped us to think about how helpful or unhelpful the current system of delivering support – through health, education and other services – is for young people with mental health issues.

How do you think systems mapping might influence the work of The Prince’s Trust?

I’ve been with The Prince’s Trust for four years and in the last 18 months I’ve been responsible for developing our mental health strategy and making it happen.

We want to have a positive impact on the mental wellbeing of the young people we support and we’re approaching that in several ways. We want to reduce the stigma around mental health and make it easy for young people to discuss any issues that they have. We want them to feel that they have a place where they can get help and support, either directly from us or by being given details of another organisation that can help.

We are working to equip our frontline members of staff with the knowledge, awareness and skills they need to talk about mental health. We are not a mental health organisation and we’re not mental health specialists, but we are investing in changing the way we work, and investing in our staff in a way that will help young people improve their mental wellbeing while they are with us.

Part of my role is to create new material to support staff to understand the issues young people face, so it’s been really helpful to take the final version of the map back to my colleagues, and to discuss it with our policy and research teams. 

Why did you want to run the mapping workshop again with young people?

We worked with the Health Foundation, the NCB, and facilitator Nick Cavill to arrange a mapping workshop with young people as a follow-up to the first workshop – which had only involved two young people. It is so important to ask the people who are really affected and experiencing this. As professionals, we might have an idea of what might be going on with young people, but what’s real and what’s happening is what young people are experiencing and saying themselves. 

The young people who attended found it a really useful and creative day and enjoyed having the opportunity to share their ideas and views. 

I haven’t seen the final map from that session yet, but I know that while there were lots of overlaps, there were also different areas of focus between the professionals and the young people themselves, really highlighting the importance of asking them. For example, young people touched a lot on the importance of peer relationships and their own self esteem as important factors in their mental health. And topics like gender identity came up, which weren’t really mentioned in the earlier session with professionals.

It’s important that we consider these different areas of focus, especially areas that we may have overlooked, and think about why these may be blind spots for us, and what we can learn from that for our future work with young people.

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