Tackling mental health stigma with debate

Wednesday 1 February 2017

London Debating Mental Health Launch

On 20th January the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families played host to the launch of the London Debating Mental Health programme.

The programme is a new ESU partnership with between Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and the Anna Freud Centre and aims to establish debate clubs for young people with mental health support needs.

A 12-week-long custom-made curriculum will culminate in a final day at Facebook headquarters in London where policymakers will be invited to listen to the experiences and ideas of the debaters. The sessions will be co-delivered by ESU Mentors and CAMHS participation workers who will receive extra training from the Anna Freud Centre staff.

In attendance were participants of the programme along with their friends and family, professionals from the healthcare sector and ESU Mentors who delivered a show debate on the topic “This House Believes: That the future of mental health care for children and young people lies in peer support.”

The opposition won the debate and during the discussions that followed we managed to catch up with Benedict Lejac, Johnny Allain-Labon and Cerys Bradley, three of the ESU Mentors delivering the programme.


Why did you become an ESU Mentor?

Johnny: I became a mentor because I saw a post on a Facebook group recruiting for Schools’ Mace judges and I thought that sounded like a great way to spend a Monday evening! I think the reason that I keep coming back is that it’s really fun. Considering that it’s paid really well, it’s a really engaging job where you get the opportunity to give back to young people, to teach them new skills and to share the stuff I’ve gained in debating. To share the public speaking skills, the analytic skills, being able to come up with a coherent argument, and to be able to give that to people all around the country is amazing.

Cerys: I’ve been teaching debating for as long as I’ve been debating, for six years. I joined the ESU mostly for the Debate Academy programme. I was really excited about going away for a week and teaching kids who love debating as much as I do. I had some great experiences and that made me want to join the newsletter and look out for opportunities. Then I saw that [the ESU] were doing this project and it looked fantastic. I wanted an opportunity to work with kids who didn’t necessarily have lots of opportunities and who would want to be there and to engage with the programme. I have had experiences with mental health services myself so it felt like a really wonderful way of getting back in touch with that side but from the other side of the coin.

Benedict: I became a mentor at the ESU because I’m super passionate about improving public speaking and critical thinking skills among young people and particularly having come from a mental health advocacy background myself, for spreading those skills to people who can really benefit from them.

How do you think debate helps young people with mental health issues?

Benedict: I think debate helps young people with their mental health issues in a lot of ways. Firstly, it helps them become more confident talking about the issues that matter to them, including issues about their own healthcare. It helps them think in a really critical and planned manner about the issues that they think are important and it helps give them a sense of control in their own lives as well. I think they really stand to gain a lot from this.

Cerys: First of all it gives them a space in which they’re told they’re supposed to be thinking about different ideas, such as their relationship with CAMHS, what they think the government should be doing for them or broader political questions. I think that so rarely at the moment kids get asked those questions and if you don’t get asked those questions then you don’t feel as if you’re entitled to an opinion and provide and answer to them. Secondly, when it comes to formulating your opinion I think debating is a really great way to do it. Because what debating does is say “you have to pick a side – you’re dead for this or you’re dead against it.” Whilst that sounds like it polarises people in terms of their opinion, what I think it actually does is pushes you to an extreme you don’t truly believe in but you get to see to what extent you’re willing to support something. So if you’re asked to argue dead against the thing you do actually believe then you, because of the competitive environment, are put in a position where you really have to evaluate, you really have to think “if I had to defend this, what would I think?” So you find good ideas on both sides of the argument. That means when you meet people that you don’t agree with in your day to day life, they’re not ridiculously stupid people with moronic ideas that are completely indefensible, you can understand on a certain level where they’re coming from. The third thing that it does is that it trains them to articulate themselves. Today it's often assumed that young people just grunt and look at their phones and they can’t really express themselves. I think a lot of the time their opinions are undervalued because of how prevalent that stereotype is. One of the greatest tools as an individual for self-confidence and for moving through life is just being able to arrange the thoughts in your head and be able to explain them in a way that other people will understand. Debating just gets you to do that again and again and again for a couple of hours a week.  So in terms of developing a skill to express yourself and your ideas debating is really great for that. I owe so much of my success to doing that debate practice. Every interview I’ve ever done, every uncomfortable conversation I’ve ever had, the reason I’ve been able to arrange the words I want to say in the correct order is because of all the debate training that I’ve had. So I think in terms of what it can give students and kids participating in the project is loads of quite invaluable skills.

Johnny: I think the really important thing that debating does for young people with mental health issues is that it gives them a voice. It gives them the ability to put their views forward to people who matter in their lives. It gives them the opportunity to explain to their support worker or their doctor why they need to have a certain treatment or why a certain treatment isn’t working. It gives them the opportunity to explain to teachers what kinds of accommodations they need to ensure that they can learn as effectively as possible and reach their full potential. I think that what debating does is it gives people a confidence in themselves and their ideas and it teaches them resilience. It teaches them that you can bounce back from losing a debate and that’s not the most important thing in the world. If you make good arguments and if you engage with the other team and if you had fun and persuaded someone then at the end of the day you’ve won regardless of the outcome of the debate.

So far, what has been the most rewarding moment of the London Debating Mental Health programme?

Benedict: I think the most rewarding part has been seeing the progress that the young people on the programme have made. Particularly looking at how they’re achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves and how they’re developing so many of their skills in debating. Seeing that increase and improve over time has been super rewarding.

Johnny: I think the most rewarding part of the programme so far was at the launch event tonight where I saw the young people who I’ve been tutoring; who at first were really quite shy and didn’t necessarily know how to put their views across, weren’t necessarily confident even in a small group setting talking and explaining their opinions; asking questions to the other side who were intimidating debaters in front of a room of peers and professionals. The amount of confidence and eloquence with which they asked those questions, really getting to the heart of the debate and actually asking questions (that the other team were too afraid to answer some of the time!) That’s the most important thing. They’ve done so well and I’m really, really proud of them.

Cerys: So I have two which I’m just going to say and I guess you can just cut one out if I’m only allowed to pick one! The first one was the first training session that I turned up to. I met all of my kids and we have six students who regularly attend the group. All of them have several different mental health issues, but something they all share is that they have ADHD in some form or another. All of the students are asked at the beginning “tell us what you want to get from the programme”. Two of the girls picked that they wanted to have a conversation with someone without interrupting them, because they know if you’re constantly interrupting, or if you’re constantly going off topic you can’t have a conversation and that’s something they want to be able to do but they’re constrained by impulses that they have and different things that they’re battling every day. That was a really fantastic moment because it meant that I knew that they knew why they were there which was really wonderful and it gave me a lot of perspective of who I was working with and what we should be aiming for. I’m an incredibly competitive person but as soon as they said that it was like it’s going to be enough just to get them to the point where they can have a debate regardless of how they’re doing in the debate. They have been making such fantastic improvements on that. But for those kids to be that self-aware and to have that goal. That was quite special. The other thing was when we just had the show debate, the contributions that my kids made were fantastic, I was so proud of them! Because they gave great floor speeches. And I think we won the debate, and I think we won the debate in part because of the things they said so that was really wonderful for me.


Read more about ESU mentors and other ways you can get involved with the ESU by checking out the ESU education network page. For more information about Debating Mental Health London, please contact programme lead Laura Tyrrell.