Northern Ireland has a troubled past. With the brutal violence of ‘The Troubles’, people lived every day in fear of their lives. While relative peace has been brought to the country, and I am lucky to be a so-called ‘child of the peace’, the first generation that never knew such atrocity, we now fear a perhaps even greater threat.
Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people have taken their own lives than were killed during the conflict. Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK and the highest rate of PTSD in the world. A devolved Government has effectively been absent in response to a rising mental health crisis, especially in young people, with 45,000 children and teenagers being diagnosed with a mental health condition at any one time. Despite this, Northern Ireland still receives the least funding for mental health reform than elsewhere in the UK, yet again laying the brunt of the problem at the feet of the public.
Nowhere is this issue more prevalent than within our schools and institutions. Seeing friends on the tipping point of a flawed system, largely ignored and under supported, evoked something in me I couldn’t quite explain. Throughout my fourteen years of education, mental health had never been mentioned to us or talked about and wilful blindness on the part of several parties resulted in my own mental health suffering. However, this problem should not be largely attributed to schools and their teachers. Consistent inaction by the Department of Health and Education, with the apogee of a three year Stormont deadlock, has paved the way for a slippery slope into the dark ages, while much of Europe continues to push ahead.
In a system with 3-4 month waiting times for CAMHS, budget cuts, one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, and a clear lack of leadership in a divided house, it appeared we had stepped off the cliff.
Seeing friends and family struggling, coupled with my own lengthy experiences of bullying and poor mental health, I decided to take action. In August 2019, entering my final year of secondary education, I, along with a close friend, began a project that was later to be known as ‘Pure Mental’, the first entirely youth-led mental health organisation in Northern Ireland.
To begin with we began researching student mental health on a small scale, establishing student committees and meeting with political representatives in our free time, while studying for our A levels.
In January 2020, we held our first ever public event, a mental health rally, receiving widespread media coverage from the likes of the BBC, ITV and I-D.
Hearing stories from young adults that day, with tears in their eyes, about how their friends and family had taken their own lives, as well as their own struggles, we knew something had to be done.
In no just society should the children of peace be so at war with themselves.
As time went on, our campaign began to gather traction, being invited to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive on mental health reform. In July 2020 we presented our campaign work to the All-Party Group on mental health and have been working directly with the Departments of Education and Health ever since. We have over a dozen committees in schools across Northern Ireland and now have a foot in the door for real change over the next few years.
It should be noted that this is just the first rung on the ladder. It’s often forgotten that mental health is one of only a few human universals. Everyone has mental health. Even if you aren’t currently struggling, it affects almost all of us at some point in our lives. This crisis is so closely intertwined in other issues, such as alcohol and substance abuse, which is one of the true spectres of poor health in our communities. These issues must also be dealt with the same rigour.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has only illuminated the fatal gaps in the system. Highlighting the true extent of the problem at home, the inadequacies of our current mental health system, as well as the recent A level exams fiasco, it has been made clear that the mental wellbeing of students is viewed as an afterthought, sacrificed for the sake of academic performance and the integrity of a model that was flawed from the outset. The next generation has yet again been negatively impacted, with 80% of young people in a recent YoungMinds survey stating that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse and 31% not able to access any support, but needing it more than ever.
Mental health must be at the forefront of our society. If the groundwork is laid properly, by educating children and adolescents on mental wellbeing, LGBTQ+ issues and pathways to resilience, perhaps we have a chance of fighting the crisis we now find ourselves in. If not, I don't dare think about world we may find ourselves in when our generation inherits the world.
However, we must have hope. By taking a stand for mental health, supporting your friends, talking openly about when you are struggling, and supporting organisations like Pure Mental, you can help turn the tide on this largely internal conflict.
Will you fight for peace of mind?
Matthew Taylor is a English and Philosophy Student at Queen’s University Belfast. He is the Co-Founder of Pure Mental NI, Media and Public Relations officer for Lisburn and Castlereagh Youth Council, and has been selected to serve as a delegate for the 2020 One Young World conference in Munich on behalf of Northern Ireland.