Get behind our young people and stop the sniping

Young people

Michaella McCollum’s treatment on social media following her release from prison in Peru for a drug smuggling conviction should give us all pause for thought about how we talk about young people’s behaviour. Having recently sat in on an Addaction information session for parents, teachers and young people about drugs, it reminded me that youthful decisions to use or supply drugs cannot simply be explained as experimentation or wilful rebellion. This is evident when you hear what Michaella McCollum had to say on release. Before we are so quick to judge – as Twitter commentators have been – it would serve us well to reflect on how we might feel if our own children (and I include myself in this) found themselves in the same situation. 

We know that the vast majority of young people make the transition to adulthood positively and relatively smoothly. There may be the odd ‘wobble’ when they worry about friendships, exams or what others think of them, but with the help of supportive parents, and with the wisdom and guidance of trusted adults, youth workers and teachers, they make it through to become remarkable adults. We know too that growing up today is not without its challenges and that low self-esteem and peer pressure can lead to a variety of risky behaviours.

McCollum acknowledged as much, telling Irish state broadcaster RTÉ that she had been "very naive, so young and very insecure" when she attempted to smuggle the cocaine. She went on to say: "A lot of times I didn't know how to say no to somebody. I kind of just followed along with it and I guess a part of me kind of wanted to be something I'm not.” It’s a pattern we see repeated often in our young people’s work and the underlying causes manifest in a variety of ways beyond drug use and supply. 

These issues can manifest in self-harm, for instance, with around 13% of young people intentionally hurting themselves at some point between the ages of 11 and 16, and a reported 70% increase in 10-14 year olds attending A&E for self-harm related reasons in 2014; in eating disorders too, with studies suggesting as many as 8% of women have bulimia at some stage in their life, often starting as teenagers; and in the general levels of problems with well-being and mental health among the young population of the UK, which are among the highest in Europe. 

While some of the biggest factors in a successful transition to adulthood are in feeling safe, being valued, having a sense of purpose, and growing up in a nurturing environment, we can’t ignore the importance of young people’s resilience. Resilience enables us all – young and old – to navigate challenges with confidence and bounce back from life’s inevitable curveballs, rocky patches, trauma and disappointments. If young people are lacking in resilience, at a time when adolescence seems hell bent on racking them with self-doubt, when difficult decisions require a response and when tough situations make the pressure mount, it’s no surprise that they can find themselves engaging in risky and harmful behaviour. Sometimes this will happen despite our best efforts to help nurture and guide them, but the benefits of resilience-based education are enormous. We can do something to help – and we are.

The Amy Winehouse Foundation Resilience Programme, run in partnership with Addaction and made possible by the Big Lottery Fund, now delivers sessions in around 100 schools to over 70,000 students. These assemblies and workshops incorporate real-life stories and ‘share sessions’ that provide a catalyst for further discussion around drugs and alcohol, as well as other issues, such as depression and self-harm. In the first interim report, more than 70% of young people reported feeling better equipped to manage self-esteem, cope with peer pressure and avoid risky behaviours after engaging in the programme. 

Likewise, in Halton our Integrated Youth Provision services have seen significant success in recent years. This includes reductions in unplanned teenage pregnancy among under 16s, which are now just 60 per cent what they were in 2008-2010, reductions in anti-social behavior and a fall in the number of young people entering A&E for alcohol-related issues. 

In Kent, our Mind and Body programme targets young people involved in or deemed especially vulnerable to self-harming behaviours. During the pilot run, 39 participants had been having thoughts in relation to self-harm at the start of the programme. At the end this figure had reduced to 26 participants, a fall of 33.3%, while 26.1% of those who self-harmed at the start of the programme had stopped completely by the end. And in Lancashire, our Children in Need funded HEART Project is helping young people to learn how to develop healthy relationships that are free from exploitation and violence, and increasing young people’s awareness of the prevalence and impact of abuse in relationships, including pressing new issues like sexting and sharing sexually explicit media.  

The great shame is that resilience-based drug education and youth programmes are not a mandatory element of the education curriculum, and rely on local decision makers and grant-giving organisations to fund individual programmes in an environment of tight budgets and continuing cuts. That’s a disappointment, when these programmes give us a greater chance of helping young people strengthen their mental health and well-being and make the difficult transition to adulthood.

Returning to Michaella McCollum, it is of course right to acknowledge that young people who commit serious crimes should face the consequences and for some that means a custodial sentence. But we should be supporting her view that she – and young people like her – are not bad people but people who have made bad decisions. We should be encouraging young people to become assets to their community and society, and – with the right balance of supportive programmes – equipping them to avoid situations like these in the first place.