The key focus of the Natural Helpers Programme is to equip young people with the necessary skills to help their peers when they are struggling with personal problems.
It is achieved by creating spaces for young people that are safe, honest and empowering with a sense of shared conversation around mental health, support & wellbeing. The programme is centred around the simple premise: within every school a ‘helping network’ exists. This informal ‘helping network’ is where young people are supporting each other through their struggles.
The programme is predominantly a youth-led initiative: the intention for young people to not only be recipients but also the facilitators of positive change. Giving young people meaningful ‘adult’ roles and responsibilities empowers and encourages them to develop skills to help themselves and their peers.
This peer-to-peer system provides a safety net for the school where young people can express their feelings whilst learning ways to cope and use the training to help other young people more effectively.
The programme uses a unique selection process to guarantee that all school subgroups are represented by a Natural Helper through peers choosing their peers as well as teachers.
An anonymous school-wide survey identifies the pre-existing ‘helpers’ of the school, both students and school adults, electing them as the Natural Helpers of the school if they wish to participate. Then, these identified individuals are invited to attend bi-weekly circles where they learn listening skills, how to know when a friend needs help, how to express concern and care, recognise when situations require professional help and how to contact and get access to these resources.
These invaluable skills ensure that the Natural Helpers are empowered by their responsibilities but also respect situations where professional help is needed.
The training & support provided for the Natural Helpers is comprehensive and ongoing. The skills acquired and enhanced by these students will not only make a positive impact on their peers but also transcends their tenure in the programme: these skills will be applicable for them for the rest of their lives.
The students elected by their peers for the programme are often young people who are highly responsible, mature, sensitive, empathetic, sociable and caring. Giving these students the encouragement and space to enhance these qualities helps shape self-worth and confidence, which is life-long beneficial.
Furthermore, the programme offers the participants skills in assessing their boundaries and develops an awareness of their limits in helping others. The students are trained and supported in recognising when they need help and gives them a space where they feel comfortable asking or accessing the help.
An important element of the Natural Helper’s programme is that the participants are a cross-section of all the subgroups of the school. So, alongside the training, for the programme to be successful, the Natural Helpers must be given space to bond and trust each other (and the involved adults). This is important for them to be an effective team.
This is often facilitated by the retreat the helpers go on, where for a couple of days the group will be for training and bonding. It’s through bonding within the group they learn to see beyond the social barriers and stereotypes that often form within schools and that can often be so divisive and difficult for students to navigate. Working together they move from tolerance and acceptance to appreciation of people's differences and individuality.
Alongside challenging barriers, the Natural Helpers training will include:
* Information at their disposal and resources centred around mental health and topics concerning young people
* Suicide prevention training
* Learning when to refer peers to appropriate adults or professional help
* Becoming familiar with ways to take care of their own and other’s mental health
* Learning coping mechanisms to aid resilience
* Being able to recognise warning signs within their peers
* Learning confidence in their ability to help others
* Challenging negative ‘norms’ within the school and reinforcing positive ones
“Booster training” will also be available throughout the school year, often in a similar style to the retreat and the ongoing meetings, where time is dedicated to revisiting and reinforcing training and ensuring group cohesion.
The Natural Helpers can also work on service projects in their ongoing meetings with the adult advisors. These service projects should promote the goals of the Natural Helpers programme and raise awareness about the work they are implementing in the school and its impact on the wider community. This also offers the students freedom to express ideas, topics important to them and promote mental wellbeing with creativity. These projects help keep the group involved and bonded with fun and creative activities.
“Guided reflection will allow participants to learn through and from their experiences, thereby allowing them to improve in their helping abilities as the programme progresses”.
The Natural Helpers will be given space to reflect on the programme and their thoughts and feelings of how it is going throughout the school year. The need to evaluate how their emotions impact their work creates greater self-awareness and compassion for themselves and be able to recognise if they need greater support.
Action To Prevent Suicide CIC brings to the Natural Helpers programme the vital component of suicide prevention training. The training is significant in the needed school-wide effort to reduce the incidents of suicide and suicide attempts.
In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death in young people and with suicides and suicide attempts, there is a ripple effect that impacts communities. “It is therefore crucial that we open up spaces where young people can talk about their concerns without fear of judgement, so that they can begin to come to terms with their feelings and access the support that they need .The significance of raising awareness through opening up spaces where young people can talk without fear of judgement in order to access the help needed is vital in creating a suicide free environment.
Suicidal thoughts, planning and behaviour are often very high in the age group 10-14 and research shows that having suicidal thoughts in childhood is considered a risk factor for suicide attempts later on. Therefore suicide prevention training is critical for all age groups in recognising warning signs and getting young people to help immediately. Suicide is complex and its causes are personal to the individual, it usually follows a combination of risk factors like adverse childhood trauma, abuse, physical and mental ill-health and academic stresses. Self-harm is also a strong risk factor for future suicide. Self-harm is more common in young people than any other age group and is a sign of extreme emotional distress and often used as a way to express feelings that are hard to communicate. The Natural Helpers programme will create a space for these young people to become aware of other coping mechanisms when struggling and tackle the stigma around self-harm in order for them to seek help.
Tackling suicide stigma is a critical part of the course, many young people feel unable to ask for help due to the major barrier that stigma plays in society. The need to create an atmosphere where young people can talk about difficult feelings without fear of judgment is crucial for them to get access to help. The stigma surrounding suicidal thoughts manifests itself as shame, guilt, social isolation and reduces help-seeking. Breaking the silence is a part of the training of the Natural Helpers.
The Natural Helpers will receive training in helping skills, recognising warning signs in their peers and how to access professional help. The programme is strongly emphasised around referrals, the importance of getting vulnerable and struggling young people to the resources and professional help that is out there. Two-thirds of people who take their lives do not approach their GP or a health professional, therefore the importance of getting vulnerable students who, without the safety net of the programme, might've overlooked the help they need. See below to watch Chukes of ATPS and Jo ann Sartorius discuss the programme.
INSTRUCTIONS: to watch the video click on this link and enter the passcode: +4?VL*0a
With the continual development of government guidelines, the course will be adapted to the appropriate rules and restrictions to ensure all risks are minimised. Any in-person training or group work will enforce the social distancing safety precautions followed by the school and, if necessary, remote participation can be facilitated.
The impact and pressure the Covid-19 pandemic has had on young people, schools and support services will be acknowledged in the Natural Helpers programme. The pandemic has created a barrier to accessing support through long waiting lists, the various disadvantages and shortcomings of digital and virtual support, the abrupt termination of pre-existing support abruptly ending and a lack of belief in current forms of support available. This barrier reinforces the already existing stigma around seeking help, whether through being worried about putting further strain on mental health services or having had a bad experience when seeking help.
A recent survey by YoungMinds (children and young people’s mental health charity) revealed that 67% of young people aged 13-25 believe the pandemic will have a long term negative effect on their mental health. Therefore it is critical that with returning to school young people’s mental wellbeing is made a priority.
Covid-19’s disruption to young people’s ways of connecting with each other has increased youth social isolation and loneliness and even as the country emerges from the pandemic it is important for a discussion of the trauma and ‘bruising’ experience of the past years.
The need to recognise that everyone’s experience of the pandemic and lockdown will be different will be part of the Natural Helpers training. The training will introduce a section on the impact of the pandemic, discussing bereavement, social isolation, health anxiety, routine interruption and losing faith in future prospects. For an honest and inclusive discussion, the Natural Helpers will learn how to uphold a non-shaming space: listening to each other’s experiences and allowing for differences. This will be facilitated by the use of ‘Group Agreements’, a set of rules that the Natural Helpers will collectively decide on at the beginning of the training, to facilitate respectful listening.