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Interview: Amy Sixsmith, mental-well-being youth worker

04 May 2018

‘We’re becoming more open in talking about the difficult topics. This is what gives me hope’

The evolution of this post came about through a conversation between a high school’s finance officer and Manchester’s diocesan youth officer. The diocese recognised the need to help schools and churches more, to signpost parents, youth leaders, and clergy to good information, and provide some relevant training for them.

Establishing a new role is exciting and daunting.
Our work is both necessary and effective, but measuring its effectiveness is certainly a challenge. One challenge is the lack of data in this field. 

I’m passionate about supporting children and young people’s mental health, and ensuring that the stigma of mental health is removed; so I was excited about this opportunity. It enables me to work alongside schools and churches in facilitating positive support for mental well-being.

Church secondary schools are my initial responsibility — we have 11 of them — as well as parishes and youth groups. I don’t want to go in and just say what we need to do. There’s a lot of research needed to find out what’s already happening, and what young people think about their mental health.

I’m not a case-worker; so I don’t talk to children one-to-one so much;
but I help schools and clergy think about how I can support them in their work. The response has been really encouraging: more people are recognising that so many of us struggle increasingly with mental health.

I’m picking up that there’s a lot around low self-esteem and identity issues, and the impact of social media. Anxiety is perhaps the predominant issue which is really affecting well-being, and one result is increasing self-harm.

There’s a need to recognise the factors that affect people’s well-being early, and to ask how we make changes at those levels rather than reactive, treatment levels. That partly explains my job title: Mental Well-being Youth Worker. We need to understand how we promote our well-being, and there has been quite a lot of work in schools about promoting people’s resilience. Consistent adult support, positive friendships, and preventing exam stress and school stress have a massive impact on well-being; so I’m really keen that schools and parishes are proactive here, and can take some of the load from the other end of the intervention spectrum.

For me, it’s all about opening that conversation
and encouraging it in our youth groups — but also a whole-church and -parish approach. Whether it’s from the front or more low-key, it’s important that we feel that we can talk about these things in church, even if we don’t have all the tools to provide a massive intervention. It would certainly reduce some of the stigma and shame that we feel in talking about our mental health, even if the conversations are quite informal. I think this does happen, but we all struggle to say that we’re struggling, and low mental health is often felt to be a sign of weakness. 

Then there’s the question how we look at mental well-being as part of faith, our relationship with God, growing into the fullness of identity, and our calling. Christians are not exempt from low mental health; so how do we understand its place in our lives, and support others?

In the church where I grew up, I had quite a few female leaders who supported me, and who would be willing to have deep conversations. When I look back, they were really important in my life. They weren’t all formal leaders, but they’d ask deep questions which pushed me to challenge myself. These were people who were quite invested in young people, and saw that it was important to make good relationships with us, hearing our voices and encouraging our skills and potential when we didn’t necessarily recognise it ourselves.

My previous experience has involved working within schools, supporting children and young people who are experiencing social, emotional, and mental-health difficulties, in day-to-day, practical ways. I’m also currently studying for a Master’s degree in Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Psychological Practice, to understand my work with young people better, and to equip me with current theory and practice.

There’s been a welcome shift in the Government’s perspective, in terms of an increased focus on well-being and early intervention. The recent Green Paper on mental health proposes improving early identification and intervention within schools. We’re all impacted by people’s low mental health; so we need to look at how we can promote positive well-being and understand the importance of early intervention.

Factors such as school pressures, social-media and peer pressures, family-unit breakdown, and bullying can all have an impact on the well-being of young people; but it’s important to look at people as individuals when we’re trying to support them.

I look after my own mental health by talking about it with people around me. Being able to tell a friend or family member that I’m experiencing my own low mental health can go a long way in breaking down barriers and helping me to put things in place to look after myself.

Teaching young people how to look after their own mental health is an area which is getting more attention, but the main focus has been given to equipping young people to look after their physical health. We need to provide young people with the tools and skills to do this, and also to recognise low mental health in others, and learn ways in which they can support their friends.

I grew up in a fantastic, supportive home with my parents and older brother as part of a wider church family; so I had a knowledge of God and aspects of the Christian faith from a young age; but I would say that my personal relationship with God began at around 17, when I truly started to understand God’s grace.

After working and studying in Leeds for the past six years, I’ve now moved back to the north-west to begin this role.

Much of my free time is spent studying for my Master’s degree, but I like to spend time with friends over coffee and food.

I love to be by the coast, and one of my favourite sounds is definitely the sound of the sea — either that or the sound my dog makes when he welcomes me home every day.

I’m angry when the language of mental health is misused. When we use mental-health terminology in a flippant way it can often add to the negative perception that people may have of it.

I’m happiest when I’m spending time with my friends and my family. I love to see new places, and I am definitely at my happiest when getting outside and travelling.

I hope to continue working supporting children and young people and supporting mental health in the future. I am not sure what this might involve, but I am excited for all the opportunities that this present role is offering.

We’re becoming more and more engaged and open in talking about the difficult topics. This is what gives me hope: our willingness to share and listen can hopefully only lead to us becoming more empathetic and compassionate towards one another.

I pray for guidance, strength, and patience daily, but also that we all understand more of what it means to live in the fullness of life.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with my grandma, who unfortunately passed away just after I was born. I am told she was very gentle, humble, and always saw the best in people. It would have been wonderful to spend time soaking up all her advice and wisdom.

Amy Sixsmith was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Mental-health Awareness Week starts on 14 May.


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