Drive for an hour in any direction in Devon and…
Based in Axminster, The Project provides unique group-based early intervention support for young people aged 13-24 experiencing mental health issues, and their parents and carers.
Picture the scene… evening at an early 19th century listed building in Axminster. A large room with pool table, table football, a kitchen area, armchairs. It looks like a typical youth club and indeed normally is a youth club, but tonight is different. The Project is in action – a mental health scheme for young people, and unique in the country.
In the main room, some young people are making a snack together. Others are talking animatedly with each other, sharing and opening out some of the emotional issues which have troubled them. In another room, a girl with a history of self-harm is having a one-to-one session with one of the three paid workers. In the art room, several young people are painting expressively to discover aspects of their inner life. On another evening there might be a campfire evening, music or maybe a relaxation workshop …
Each session begins with twenty minutes of catching up with how life has been since the last time they met. There are two groups, which rotate fortnightly, for 13-18 year olds and 18-24s – and some young people have been coming almost since The Project began operating in the autumn of 2013.
And they have benefitted too. Take Mary (not her real name), now aged 22. She had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act three times before attending The Project, each time requiring hospitalization at considerable expense. Since attending, she has not been sectioned or needed inpatient care, although is still waiting for a therapeutic intervention from mental health services, and has been for several months. She calls The Project “my second family”.
“The Project is brilliant. I feel safe with the people around me. I enjoy coming and know that I can talk to people who understand or will at least empathise with what I’m going through.”
In its first year, The Project has supported 39 young people from across East Devon, who attend for a range of reasons which have affected their mental wellbeing. Tom, badly bullied at school; Sylvie, previously hospitalised with an eating disorder; Helen, diagnosed with severe social anxiety and who at first found it terrifying to come to the group; Will, battling with depression; Kevin, struggling to cope with exam stress. (all the names have been changed)
The programme is a mixture of emotional and social support, run very informally and always by the choice of participants. The focus is on the young person, and not on their illness, with peer support a key component to the success of the group. The emphasis has always been on young people with their own history of mental illness acting as peer mentors, to give hope and inspiration to those attending sessions. They form part of a team of volunteer from across the age range, including some with professional mental health, teaching and youth work backgrounds.
The Project was set up by a local mum, Debbie Humberstone, who lives in Axminster, and describes her life as having been “turned upside down” when her daughter, Jess, developed severe mental health issues at the age of 15. Suffering with severe depression, anxiety, self harm, an eating disorder, and suicidal thoughts, Jess spent 5 months in an adolescent psychiatric unit in Plymouth – the only unit for young people in the whole of the South West.
Five years on, Jess is now living a fully independent life – proof that with the right support, and a lot of determination, young people can, and do, recover from mental illness. But both Debbie and Jess felt that more could have been done at a community level to support her recovery. And so The Project was born, out of both their experiences, and the support they would have wanted, and which may have prevented Jess’s illness becoming so serious.
At a national level, young people’s mental health services have been almost constantly in the news over the past few months, with inadequate investment over many years leaving statutory services now in crisis. This has resulted in appointment waiting times of many months – sometimes up to a year, and young people being admitted to hospitals hundreds of miles from their homes.
Debbie said: “The Government are at long last recognising the need for investment in young people’s mental health, and the need for early intervention, rather than waiting until symptoms escalate as they did with my daughter. The Project was set up to fill that gap, and in its first year it has already shown how effective this can be.”
The Project, which is hosted by independent charity East Devon Volunteer Support Agency, is entirely self-funded, through grants, donations and fundraising, and is always grateful to groups, organisations and individuals who support them to continue their work with local young people – both financially, as well as by giving their time and expertise.
The Project’s support sessions for young people take place at the Young People’s Centre in Axminster on Thursday evenings. Places are booked via referral.
Also offered is a monthly Parents & Carers Group, for those supporting a young person experiencing mental distress. The group meets locally on the third Tuesday of the month.
Details for both groups can be found on our website:
Phone: 01404 549045
Mobile: 07970 167341
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