What was it like growing up in North Ayrshire?

23 November 2018

The Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry aims to build an understanding of the influences affecting the future health of young people. The inquiry is exploring the support 12-24 year-olds need to enter adulthood with the core building blocks for a healthy future. These building blocks include appropriate skills and qualifications, personal connections, financial, practical and emotional support. 

Zoe Nix grew up in North Ayrshire, and was one of the young people involved in our research. In this blog, she talks about some of the key issues for young people in her area and reflects on her own experiences growing up.

I think when someone asks you what it was like to grow up anywhere, you initially think about the negative things. But when you sit down and think about it properly, there are good things too. For example, over the last couple of years I’ve really begun to appreciate the coastline around Irvine, where I grew up. It’s somewhere you can go to sit, think and chill out. 

Irvine is one of the bigger towns in North Ayrshire. It has good transport links and things to do. There are lots of independent shops and cafes popping up now as well. That means more nice places for young people to go, as well as businesses supporting the local economy and providing jobs. 

It’s a bit different just down the road in the more rural Garnock Valley. Young people there really struggle with transport and a lack of jobs, so they have more issues than I ever thought about when I was growing up. 

I’m currently at university in Glasgow studying for a BA in Community Development and, as part of that, I am in a placement doing youth work. So it was really interesting for me being involved in the inquiry. There was a recruitment and training process for us to become researchers and then we went off and worked with schools, youth and community groups to find out what young people felt the issues were in their area. 

When I was around the age of the youngest people we spoke to, I don’t think there were so many young people switched on about the issues we were talking to them about. I actually think some of the richest conversations we had in the research were with the 11- and 12-year-olds. They’re often not taken as seriously as the older ones, so it was good to see them getting so involved.

Mental health, poverty, violence and knife crime came up a lot more than I was expecting. It was something that we thought had got better over the years, but the young people felt that it is still a big issue. That didn’t fit with the statistics we had from the local police division so that was quite surprising to me. 

I was also surprised about some of the places they said they wouldn’t go because they didn’t feel safe, particularly if it was dark. They spoke about areas in town that seemed to be the safer places to me. Things have changed since I was that age though. Things like social media have changed the way that people hang out and how they feel safe. Young people feel safe behind a screen, rather than being judged by the public for hanging out in large groups – something which young people are often heavily criticised and to an extent criminalised for.

Some of the things they spoke about were familiar to me, particularly in terms of support at school. Support for people with physical and mental health conditions seems to be getting worse rather than better. Personally, I was really fortunate with the teachers I had, and although it was never my favourite place to be, it was somewhere I felt I could thrive. There were teachers that I felt really did care, which boosted my confidence.

In terms of mental health, North Ayrshire does have a long way to go. We recently had four young people who died by suicide in the space of a few months. Three of them were in schools which are just a few hundred metres apart, so the pupils were hit really hard. It opened my eyes to how much work we have to do around mental health in particular. 

The young people I spoke to felt there wasn’t a lot of support from schools around mental health, and that mental health services were almost non-existent. It might be acknowledged that they needed support, but the waiting lists for support were so long that it wasn’t offered until things reached crisis point.

I think poverty is very connected to mental health and we have quite high poverty rates in North Ayrshire. Poverty and mental health are the two main things that we need to focus on in the area.

Finding employment hasn’t been an issue for me, but that’s because I’m a swimming teacher and lifeguard, and the leisure company I work for has always been crying out for them. I know that a lot of young people feel that you need experience to get a job, but you need the job to get experience, so they find it difficult. In the Garnock Valley, a network has been set up between the local businesses and the schools, to get them talking to each other about the kind of soft skills businesses are looking for in employees, like communication and time management, so the schools can help young people to develop them. 

My biggest support came from teachers and two youth workers. They supported me through exams, finding a career path and through life in general and I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have got involved in the majority of things I have done without their support and guidance. I know that some of the people I work with in the youth groups feel the same way, in that I’ve been the person they can talk to about anything. Often the young people confide in us, rather than a teacher, because it’s a more informal relationship and a more relaxed environment. 

I really hope that we use the findings of the inquiry to improve things for our young people, to make them feel safer, more valued and more supported in school, when looking for careers, but, most importantly, to feel supported through life and any hardships they may face.

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