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Closing the gap: Involving young people in research in a meaningful way

In this blog, Georgie sets out why she feels it is essential young people are more involved in pieces of research that will go on to affect their lives.

Nationally, there is a significant gap between children and young people’s need for mental health support, and the help available. The Anna Freud Centre produced a Closing the Gap report and hosted an event about this, and these discussions prompted this blog.

I am Georgie, I’ve been working with 42nd Street in Manchester for three years now, since October 2018.

On 22 September 2021, I was lucky enough to attend the Anna Freud Centre’s event, “Closing the gap in child and youth mental health support: insights from North West England”. 

Something that particularly resonated with me from the event was when Meera Saravanan, a Youth Activist, said how vital young people are in conducting and creating research. Like me, Meera has experience of being a student. Personally, I think studying politics has given me a unique insight into conducting research. However, I think young people from all backgrounds, upbringings and education levels must play a key role in co-creating and producing important pieces of research. Young people have un-ignorable, valuable lived experience which is often overlooked, and this needs to change. 

I have now conducted three pieces of research with 42nd Street. One looked at employment rights, another looked at mental health support for young people in schools, and the third sought to educate care givers of LGBT+ young people and young people on LGBT+ issues. Links to read this and other pieces of 42nd Street’s research can be found at the end of this blog. 

These are the things I have learnt along the way, and why I think pieces of work that involve young people are so important:

  1. All too often, research on young people can be conducted from start to finish without a single young person being involved in a real or meaningful way. When young people are involved it is sometimes only in a superficial way and this is nonsensical.

    I think that projects can only create meaningful pieces of work when data is collected by young people, with young people playing key roles in co-creating and producing the piece of work.

  2. Young people are experts on our own lives. We have more recent – so in some ways, more relevant – lived experience of what’s going on around us and how it affects our day to day lives. Whilst experts, researchers and politicians provide beneficial insight, the voice of young people cannot and should not be ignored. 

    We are all experts, just different kinds of expert. The more voices involved, the better the piece of work. The better (and more diverse) the piece of work, the more valuable it will be and the more people it can help. It is not a thorough piece of research if key voices are excluded, this includes race, sexuality, gender, ability and age. I also think that evidence that is more inclusive of young people gives more valid and reliable data as it is shaped by a more diverse range of real experiences. Experts and researchers can have an unconscious researcher bias that will affect the outcome of the piece of research. 

    Researchers can become detached from what it actually means to be a young person in today’s society, despite having the best intentions at heart. There is a big difference of understanding between reading about young people’s experiences, hearing of it first-hand and actually having the young people meaningfully involved. Statistics show that older generations believe that social media is the biggest cause of stress for young people, whereas young people say that it is school. There is no doubt gaps in generational experience and understanding. This gap in understanding can have really bad consequences which affects all generations. 

  3. It is vital that young people are involved in making the decisions that affect their everyday lives. As a young person, I have seen many life changing decisions made for me that have been completely out of my control. An example is as I was coming up to university age, we were told that student fees would not be raised to £9,000 a year from the existing £3,200 cap, despite a promise this would not happen. Decisions like this irreparably change young people’s lives. More often than not, in a negative way. However, if young people were involved then I’d like to think more decisions would positively change young people’s lives.

  4. Young people are allowed to make life changing decisions for themselves. Young people can get married, join the army and have to make many decisions which will affect them for years to come.

    However, too often factors are outside our control and limit these life changing decisions. For example, postcode lotteries can mean schools in their catchment areas won’t have the GCSE course or apprenticeships young people would ideally want. Or, long waiting lists may mean they can’t access the vital mental health or social support they need to get back on their feet and thrive. It is disempowering and keeps young people and their families in negative cycles. Projects like 42nd Street’s, and the #BeeWell project Meera spoke about, give power back to young people and support them to have control of their life.

    Young people are considered responsible enough to make these life changing decisions, so we should also be considered responsible enough to affect these decisions. Youth activists such as Amika George and Mikaela Loach have proven young people to be more than competent enough, and must be listened to and taken seriously. 

  5. Research is often used in meetings discussing important decisions that will be made. It can be very hard to tell a good study from a bad study, compare and understand data, results and what this all means. Different pieces of research will have different outcomes depending on things like what questions are asked and how they’re phrased. (Again, impacted by researcher bias.)

    Young people can think about how they and their peers would want to be asked a question and what would truly resonate with them. 

    Giving young people an important role where they work alongside a qualified researcher, they can learn more about concepts like validity and reliability. Work experience and shadowing are really important for the social development of young people. It is important work to put on a CV, to enhance our future opportunities. It is confidence building. Working alongside experts and qualified youth workers/researchers provides a source of inspiration for young people. It is truly important. 

  6. Co-producing research has also helped me to better understand my own experiences. Seeing that other young people struggle with exactly what I struggle with gives me a strange sense of comfort. I guess it’s good to know you’re not alone in our world. Many of us face similar experiences. It is empowering, and a relief, for me to try and prevent other young people from going through what I went through. We’re in this together.

    Seeing other young people at the Anna Freud Centre’s event had a lasting impact on me. It was Meera’s comment which inspired the topic of this blog.

    I’ve had the opportunity to create these pieces of work. They’ve had a positive impact on my life, allowing me to grow and better understand the world around me. I’ve been able to interview young people about their experiences. I hope that I’ve been a role model to some of these young people. If I can do it, they definitely can too. I also hope that their needs, wants and feelings being listened to in a genuine way has provided them with a sense of hope for the future.

    These pieces of work are being conducted, and many young people are fighting to do everything in our power to make a change. Politically active young people can be looked down on and ridiculed by the very people who are responsible for creating the problems young people face. We’ve seen this with the treatment of Greta Thunberg. Hopefully, having more young people involved will remove the normalisation of this kind of behaviour. We must all be involved in producing pieces of work that are a resource that can be referred to by institutions, charities and young people alike and for anyone else who is interested in learning about the lived experience of young people. Research must be created with young people rather than for them.

    You can see the pieces of work we’ve created on the 42nd Street website.