Getting young people involved in research on the things that matter to them – What can we do? #WorldMentalHealthDay2023

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by Olivia, Cara, Naomi, and Annabelle

Engaging Children and Young People in Research Community of Practice Meeting

Thursday 8th & Friday 9th September 2023; University of York

There is a knowledge gap in our understanding about approaches and methods for meaningfully involving and engaging with children and young people in matters and decisions that impact on them. 

A two-day meeting was held at the University of York with researchers from the University of York, Bristol, Hertfordshire, Southampton and Auckland, NZ as well as a representative from the International Alliance of Mental Health Research Funders. This group came together to form an international Community of Practice (CoP), with the goal of sharing learning, methods, and experience for effective ways to engage young people. It also highlighted the wide variety of opportunities for putting children and young people at the heart of research, decision making and advocacy for their mental health and well-being. 

Here are our reflections as early career researchers (ECRs) from the meeting:  

What did we gain from the meeting? 

We thoroughly enjoyed being with professionals who have expertise in research for youth health, wellbeing, mental health, and youth advocacy. We gained an understanding of what exactly a community of practice is, listened to the experiences of all members and contributed to the conversations. It was lovely to hear international voices and get to exchange creative ideas for involving young people and encouraging them to share their ideas, as well as learning a great deal about youth engagement in general. 

What were our highlights? 

Hearing from the Healthy Mind Apprentices; Chloe, Kenzie, Lauren & Phoebe who are a group of young people, passionate about mental health who work across Bradford and Craven to support young people, communities and schools with their health and wellbeing. They reflected on their time working with Y-MHESH and spoke about what their apprenticeship meant to them and what they have learned along the way. They shared with us that the problem is not that young people do not have a voice; they instead believe that decision makers are not listening. Therefore, it was interesting to hear that we need to take necessary steps to ensure ‘decision makers’ are able and willing to share the decision-making power with young people. 

Overall being involved in the CoP was positive, as we had the opportunity to be involved in discussions with leaders in the field. Often, we can become ‘stuck’ in our ideas, so having the opportunity to present new ideas and challenge our Community of Practice to think in novel ways which align with the realities for children and young people was a highlight for sure! 

What could have been improved? 

It might have been more beneficial for our CoP group if the Healthy Mind Apprentices joined us for longer, as these fabulous young people reminded us that it is about listening and valuing meaningful involvement of children and young people, so it would have been great to have more youth representation in our own decision-making processes. Youth voices should be included throughout our CoP meetings, whether this be the Healthy Mind apprentices or groups of different young people. 

One of the main challenges in this area is that when coproduction and research is done with young people, they often do not see the outputs they have created or get to feel the impact of their work before they move. It is important we consider this when setting out to do co-production work or research with children and young people. 

What are the advantages of involving early career researchers in research and in the CoP? 

We provide a fresh perspective on topical issues today and have greater freedom to think beyond our specialty areas. This gives us the ability to consider the broader picture at an international or societal level and bridge the gap between young people and established researchers, as we understand the points of view and needs of young people, while simultaneously understanding research processes. 

This meeting was a fantastic way to solidify the learning from the CoP and focus us on a clear path forward to best support the goals of children and young people in research. 

Reflections on public engagement and engagement in research for young people 

From the perspective of an ECR, it seems extremely important that “brand image” and visibility recognised by senior management at universities and funders at research centers. Engaging with the public, I.e., young people, both heightens visibility and reinforces brand image, which is why Patient and Public Engagement and Involvement (PPIE) work with young people within schools, young people’s PPIE groups and other youth groups, including the Healthy Mind Apprenticeship scheme, is so valuable. Although, it can be difficult to get PPIE work funded. The purpose of PPIE work is to get people’s views on what needs to be researched and what is important to them, so to do this after a project has been decided defeats the purpose. 

Young people form part of our communities, but their inputs have been historically overlooked as unimportant or uninformed. Yet, some of the most valuable insights come from our young people, because at the end of the day this is their reality, and they live it every day. It is therefore crucial to have young people be meaningfully engaged so research, funding and decisions are aligned with what people want and need – and children and young people should be no exception. If we consider and give power to the voices of young people, then perhaps we can work to meaningfully elevate the health and wellbeing of entire future communities. 

So, with that, we leave you with this whakatauki (Māori proverb). 

Mā whero, mā pango ka oti ai te mahi With red and black the work will be complete

We are all looking forward to our next CoP meeting! 

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