Meet the young activists tackling Northern Ireland’s mental health crisis
A new generation of charity workers and organisers are fighting back against local political apathy and taking matters into their own hands.
Imagery courtesy of Pure Mental NI and Lucinda Graham.
While Stormont finally reopened late last week, three years without local government in Northern Ireland has meant that activists, charity and community workers have taken on a huge amount of responsibility in dealing with social issues in the region. It was young activists, after all, who led the charge in demanding equal marriage for LGBTQ+ people and equal abortion rights for Northern Ireland, and it was activists who celebrated when these historic changes finally came into effect. Recently, the impact of activists has been most potent in tackling the mental health crisis currently devastating young people in the north.
Since 1998, over 5,000 people have died by suicide in Northern Ireland, and the start of the new year saw headlines dominated by more lives lost. The crisis is hitting young people particularly hard, with 45,000 children and teenagers being diagnosed with a mental health issue. Yet in spite of the ubiquity of the problem, many organisers feel that not enough is being done to educate young people and encourage them to talk about and begin to tackle their problems.
To that end, the group Pure Mental held their first rally in the capital city of Belfast earlier this month, demanding recognition of the crisis facing young people and action in handling it. Founded by 18-year-old Jay Buntin and 17-year-old Matthew Taylor, the group’s goals are to push for greater mental health education and the declaration of a mental health emergency in the region. “Urgent action must be taken,” Jay explains. “This is an emergency. The number of suicides is increasing significantly in Northern Ireland and emergency action needs to be taken to start saving these lives. We have passed the point of short term plans and fixes -- we need urgent, long term solutions.”
The pair, who are in their final year of school, became inspired to take action after seeing close friends and family members suffer in near silence with their mental health issues. “We thought about our 14 years of schooling and how little mental health is discussed within schools,” says Jay. “It’s really alarming, especially as half of all mental health issues arise by age 14. We’re never taught about the importance of mental wellbeing, how to get help when you need it, and how to support others suffering.”
Pure Mental began doing their own research and reaching out to schools to find out more about the lack of funding and education clouding the issue. “The schools we’ve spoken to are all too aware of the importance of the mental health of their pupils but stress to us that without the necessary resources and training, they are limited in what they can do,” explains Jay.
“Young people have a lot of pressures -- bullying, body image, peer pressure, exam and school stress, and family struggles,” Jay says. “In Northern Ireland in particular, however, we seem to have a ‘suck it up’ culture which is not very open to discussing how somebody feels or the stresses they’re facing. This leads to bottled up emotions and young people struggling alone, not feeling comfortable enough with the idea of actually talking to somebody. That’s something we struggle to do here -- talk. NI has the highest suicide rate in the UK, but 25% less funding than the rest of the country. So, those who need help struggle to access the services they need.”
Along with organising rallies like the one that took place in Belfast, Pure Mental are now committing themselves to lobbying the departments of Health and Education to make mental health a priority, and organising student-led support schemes. The teenage founders are also creating their own report on how mental health and wellbeing can be integrated into education even at a primary and pre-school level.
Fashion graduate Lucinda Graham, an activist, youth-worker and creative based in Belfast, was one of those at Pure Mental’s rally last week. “It angers me that people don’t understand how prolific the issue is here,” Lucinda says. “It's utterly heartbreaking, and as the statistics stand, almost a life is lost every day to suicide on average. It’s hard not to become despondent, especially with cuts to our mental health services. Local charities have taken the burden and a lot of young people feel completely abandoned.”
At 23 years old, Lucinda was just two when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, bringing an end to 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. “I’ve grown up in years of relative peace,” she says. “But there’s a hangover that has been left by those years of war. Hundreds of thousands of people left to try to move on with their lives despite years of fear and loss of life. People were never encouraged to seek help for the trauma experienced, and even if they did, there isn't enough help for them. A whole generation of older people who witnessed horrors that we will never know have to try and live their everyday lives like it never even happened. But then, how can we change the future if our own government will not sit together and move mental health to the top of the agenda?”
For now, there is some hope that mental health will indeed move at least a little closer to the top of that agenda. With Stormont making steps towards returning as a fully-functioning local legislature, people are tentatively hopeful for positive action against the mental health crisis. Out of the lack that existed in the years of broken government, a community of activists, groups like Pure Mental and local safe space club nights like DSNT and The 343 have sprouted up. And they’re not letting up just yet on putting the pressure on politicians to demand action. “There’s an epidemic facing Northern Ireland,” says Jay. “We are determined to try to change that.”