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Young men's mental health charity needs support

CHANGE-MAKER: Nathan Dennis of First Class Legacy organisation

A PIONEERING project which was launched in Birmingham two years ago to support young African and Caribbean men’s mental resilience desperately needs a cash lifeline to continue its groundbreaking work.

This was the strong message from a youth-led conference, Up My Street, put together by the mental health charity Mind and the Integrate Movement, which looked at how young men can improve their coping mechanisms to stay mentally well.

The project grew out of startling figures that reveal how one in three young people who offend often have a mental health issue at the time of the offence, which is not being addressed. Those most in need of help are the least likely to access support.

Since 2015 three Birmingham-based organisations have supported the scheme with very encouraging results: they are the city’s own Birmingham Rep theatre, which hosted the conference; First Class Legacy, a community engagement company; and the St Basil Housing Association, a charity which tackles homelessness.

The Rep has used drama to open up dialogues about mental health and the conference included a performance highlighting the needs of African and Caribbean young men, supported by a presentation from Philip Morris, the Rep’s youth theatre director.

Nathan Dennis, founder of First Class Legacy who masterminded the Dear Youngers social media project, and also Silent Screams, told the conference:

“There seems to be a circus happening at the moment around mental health with every man and his dog, celebrities and musicians all talking about it, but we need to put a caution sign out there because this is about real people who are fighting to get better.”

EXPRESSION: Philip Morris, youth theatre director at the Birmingham Rep

Dennis, who has a team that goes into schools and who also make positive mental health promotional videos, said:

“I always feel it’s important to make people feel culturally at home – in mental health a person-centred approach matters. To be mentally strong and resilient, it’s important to talk in a culturally meaningful language.

“I would just say to everyone here to give us more chances and opportunities to carry out our work – I’d also like to thank Mind publicly. We are trying to look mental health in a new way and we believe it is working.”

Meanwhile, Sam Henry, of St Basil’s explained the importance of using music therapy and also physical activities such as cycling.

“We want to see more activities like this available to young African Caribbean males,” he said.

Lorraine Khan, associate director of the Children and Young People Centre for Mental Health, said:

“Many of these young men feel that they are in an identity vacuum – they are not part of anything.

“They feel flooded by negative stereotypes, not just in terms of the media, but in the kind of narrow, nuanced representations of masculinity that they came into contact with. They feel this restricted who they could be, giving them fewer reasons to feel proud – and that word has come up quite a lot today. They feel they had no positive male role models.

“There is also an unacknowledged and under-estimated impact of historical trauma and I think that has come out as a major theme. Some felt they have achieved against the odds, which wears down your system.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Sarah-Jane Nii-Adjei of Mind (photo credit: Sarah-Jane Nii-Adjei)

“There are common experiences of low school expectation; many have been told they would never amount to anything. All this lowers well being, which is why African Caribbean men are 15 times more likely to present with some kind of mental health trauma.

“Experiences of micro aggressions across a lifetime wears down your stress system; it’s a bit like having a car that’s over-revved the whole time, which impacts eventually on your physical and mental health.”

She added:

“All three of the projects have talked openly about mental resilience and what this meant. Many young men feel a huge emotional ‘push and pull’ between the family and the road.

“The power of brotherhood is really, really strong, not just in a family way, but in a spiritual, cultural sense too. There is also a great need for a ‘pass it on’ mentoring culture, so that more young men are exposed to positive male role models.”

Beresford Dawkins, community development manager for Birmingham & Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“From the point of view of the community taking responsibility, all three projects have demonstrated this brilliantly.

“Up My Street was designed to build capacity and to put frameworks in position to support that and it has delivered. Our job now is to come together and work out how we can fund this to further support this.”

He paid tribute to Sarah-Jane Nii-Adjei, Mind’s senior equality improvement officer who had shown great leadership and "grabbed this project by the horns."

Dawkins, who also praised Khan, highlighted that the project’s success had been down to the positive relationships formed in partnership with both the professionals and the young men themselves.

Lakhvir Rellon, head of community engagement and inclusion for Birmingham & Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, who chaired a debate to end the conference, concluded:

“Usually these types of events are held only after a tragedy when people come together, so it’s been so refreshing to hear no negative comments from anyone.

“It’s all been about what us as individuals and groups can do to make things better and this has been such an inspirational message. I personally have found it very humbling. I thought that any one of these young men could be running this city and it might be a better place if these guys were in control because you have mental resilience and vision. You’re a real inspiration to the rest of us.

“Hands up to Nathan Dennis, Philip Morris and Sam Henry – you guys have been phenomenal. You can feel the love in the room.”

Rellon added:

“I can’t answer all the questions about funding. If I had the money I would give it to you but what I can promise is that within four weeks I will call the project leads together to see what is possible.”

She added that it cost just £12,000 a year to run one of these projects.

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