SSRP researchers explore the impact of sustainability uncertainties on youth mental health
Posted on behalf of: Sussex Sustainability Research Programme
Last updated: Friday, 13 May 2022
Taking care of your body and mind is vital, particularly during these challenging times. This Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15May 2022), take a look at two interdisciplinary research projects dealing with this all-important issue:
- Scoping an intervention in youth mental health support in the Global South led by Principal Investigator (PI) Dr Emma Newport (School of Media, Arts and Humanities)
- Uncertain pedagogies for youth and community resilience led by PI Dr Rebecca Webb (School of Education and Social Work), including the recently SSRP-funded follow-on project Creating with Uncertainty. Covid recovery to educate for sustainable futures led by PI Dr Perpetua Kirby (School of Education and Social Work)
With funding from the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP), both streams of research explore the impacts of major global tragedies, crises and uncertainties, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, on young people’s mental health. According to the charity ‘Young Minds’, 80% of young people with mental health needs in the UK alone say that the pandemic and lockdown have negatively affected their mental health. Similarly, anxiety levels in this age group in relation to climate change are increasing steadily. A global survey from September 2021 shines a light on the depth of this ‘eco-anxiety’ with almost two-thirds of 10,000 16-25 year-olds across 10 countries being ‘very or extremely worried’ about climate change.
These numbers are high and distressing, yet unsurprising: we live in times of great uncertainty in which intersecting crises are being elevated to global dimensions. We are faced with unprecedented levels of inequality, war and conflict, environmental destruction and looming climate catastrophe. Long-term (re)thinking, a global-to-local approach guided by science, long-term (re)thinking, and collective action are urgently needed when it comes to addressing contemporary crises.
Climate change and pandemics demand creative, critical and resilient civil societies. Through their project ‘Creating with Uncertainty’, Dr Kirby and her research team have been working with teachers and environmental educators in the UK and the Global South to explore how to support children and young people when grappling with the uncertainties of climate change and broader sustainability challenges.
Dr Kirby explains ‘Modern schooling emphasises certainty, in that teachers instruct students about what is already known about the world, and the task of the student is to identify the correct answer. Suck knowledge is important, but alone it is insufficient to meet the challenge of achieving net zero. We are working with schools to think through how they can open up spaces to embrace a creative engagement with uncertainty, where teachers do not know the answer in advance but instead explore answers and possibilities together with their students.’
Working with staff in the School of Media, Arts and Humanities, the team aims to foster immersive creative engagement with local issues, such as local offshore wind turbines, kelp beds and food security. Highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary research, Dr Kirby says ‘Our colleagues in MAH are using storytelling, sound and drama to enable students to pay deep attention to the world around them; to register their feelings and thoughts; and to look at things from different perspectives, including that of plants and animals. We also have sustainability experts from Life Sciences, Environmental History and International Relations sharing and discussing with students’ stories of how they have had to face up to uncertainties in their work.’ Overall, the motivation for this work lies in supporting hopeful educational possibilities with a view to fostering community resilience expressed through narratives of hope and action.
Similarly, the research project led by Dr Emma Newport focussed on improving youth mental health, promote social inclusion and strengthen post-pandemic resilience in the Global South. Collaborating with The Youth Café Kenya, a pan-African youth organisation, the project directly built on the success of the youth-engagement platform ‘Lockdown Live’. Dr Newport recounts ‘We recognised that our youth needed a space in which to define and debate their own experiences of and responses to the pandemic, which resulted in a powerful global exchange between young people from twenty-two different countries. They determined the topics of importance, which included learning in lockdown, misinformation and disinformation, post-covid futures, and mental health.’
As the international group placed great importance on the latter, an interdisciplinary Sussex-based team worked together with The Youth Café to further scope the use of digital tools in the delivery of youth mental health interventions in Kenya. The goal was to produce a blueprint for online mental health support with and for young people extending the youth-led Youth Café model that previously focussed on issues of social equity, democratic governance, economic viability and sustainable development.
According to Dr Newport the use of social media during and after the project was key ‘to communicate about youth mental health, with a focus on raising awareness and destigmatising mental health and mental health care, as well as providing local in-person and online methods of accessing support. We focused on creating positive conversations and spreading relevant hashtags so that young people could find support socially as well as in terms of active intervention.’
Further information about the projects on ‘Scoping an intervention in youth mental health support in the Global South’ and Creating with Uncertainty. Covid recovery to educate for sustainable futures, funded by Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP), can be found on the SSRP website.
To find out more detailed information about ‘Creating with Uncertainty’, including useful educational resources, visit ‘Transform-in Education’.
To read up on the ‘Lockdown Live’ series and other creative writing and educational initiatives, browse through the ‘Sussex Writes’ blog.