As part of a series exploring Big Local responses to COVID-19, our journalist-at-large Ryan Herman speaks to Taz Virdee, the Project Manager at Heston West, about the initiatives being implemented to support young people’s mental health during lockdown.
Monday marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week. It comes at a point when it is widely anticipated that the UK will experience a surge in cases relating to mental health across all ages because of COVID-19.
“We’re expecting mental health and the economic impact to be the biggest challenges coming out of this crisis,” says Taz Virdee, Project Manager at Heston West Big Local in Middlesex.
“We work with a lot of students. There has been a lack of social interaction, cabin fever might set in for some people and there might be a crisis of confidence. And some people had existing mental health issues before COVID-19.
“In some cases being at home is not a safe space. Being at school offers an escape, where they can be themselves. So, simply not having that regular Monday to Friday routine has been a big challenge in itself.”
A survey published this week by youth mental health charity YoungMinds revealed that one in four children and young people with mental health issues in the UK cannot access the support they need as a result of the pandemic.
Taz adds, “There is also an assumption that young people spend all their time on their phones or on social media but actually what we’re finding is they are the ones who are missing social interaction the most. We’ve seen a lot of relationships break up. And communities are built on relationships.
“So the question is what can we do to support our community?”
Heston West set up a befriending service aimed at people who they feel are most vulnerable or at risk. In some cases, individuals have been referred on to charities.
Taz says, “This is a product of over five years work within this community. I’m handling a lot of messages on any given day, which is a lot to take on but it’s good because it gives us a picture of how people are really feeling, and a lot of it is built around uncertainty and fear. I was speaking with one family whose son is a teenager and has asthma and they won’t that child out of the house for a walk.
“I make the first approach to see if somebody would like to use any of these services. We don’t want to impose, we want to empower and allow people to make decisions for themselves.
“But one of the important messages we want to get across is that it’s okay to talk.”
Heston West is not the only Big Local tackling the issue of youth mental health. In Cumbria, Ewanrigg’s multi-award-winning WE WILL project has recently produced a short animated film titled ‘Just Listen’. Due to COVID-19, WE WILL’s planned activities have had been adapted but its key message is now more important than ever – the simplest and most effective solution to coping in challenging times is to listen.
Youth unemployment in both Ewanrigg and Heston West seems certain to increase significantly because of COVID-19. A recent report by The Association of Colleges predicted that half of the new labour market entrants – around 100,000 16 to 25-year-olds – will struggle to find meaningful employment.
Taz explains that “we are only three miles from Heathrow Airport. A lot of people here have lost jobs, or have been furloughed and might not have a job to go back to.
“We’re working with a local group called Hounslow Promise to provide laptops for children who are now having to study at home, as well as providing free broadband for people who are trying to apply for jobs online.”
Like countless other Big Locals, Heston West’s COVID-19 response has also focused on delivering food parcels to those who need it most; the service has been so successful to the point where it has been copied by neighbouring communities.
“The council has been singing our praises and it’s heartening to know they are recognising our to work to the extent that councillors are helping with our deliveries,” adds Taz.
“Cranford Community College has been a brilliant partner, Addison Lee has donated cars, Morrisons has donated food and it has all been coordinated by an amazing volunteer team led by our chair Alan Fraser. It’s been a community effort, and that’s the way it should be.
“But we’ve also tried to think creatively. As an example, after we delivered one of the food parcels, a member of our team created a five-minute video on how to make a meal using items from the parcel which then went direct to all the people who received those parcels through Whatsapp.
“Also we’ve reconnected with residents. Over the past eight years inevitably some people drop out of their involvement with Big Local for different reasons but this has reignited their passion for their community.
“A crisis shows who you are as a person and a community. This is what people will remember Heston West for. Long after this is over people will say Big Local was there for them to protect their families. That is a powerful legacy.”