In the UK today, young women have the highest rates of poor mental health, with many also experiencing domestic abuse. That’s why in 2022, with the support of the Mayor of London’s Violence Reduction Unit, we launched a girls programme called LIFT. This programme supports 37 girls aged 9-13 from across London who have been affected by domestic abuse or may be vulnerable due to a range of factors. Through a series of workshops and mentoring, we aim to build the girls’ resilience and impact positively on their future.
For National Mental Health Awareness Week, we talked to youth workers, Leah and Rhoda, about how the programme is going and what they’ve learnt from listening and working with groups of girls.
Tell me a bit about the LIFT programme?
Leah: Our weekly workshops are for girls aged 9 to 13 years old, the idea is to create a space using practice-based activities to explore different themes. For example, healthy relationships, online safety, identifying signs of negative behaviour, as well as exploring and encouraging self confidence in the young people. As part of the programme, the girls also have their own female one-to-one mentors who come along to the group sessions to support their mentees and carry on the work we do during their one-to-one sessions. A big aspect of our work is grounded in early intervention, therefore creating a safe space for the girls to meet and recognise they’re not alone is important, especially as some experience a lot of anxiety and isolation in their personal life. Our sessions are all about laying the groundwork for a more positive future post-mentoring. It’s so important to us that they realise how great they are and how much worth and value they hold.
Rhoda: We find that when the girls first come in they are quite shy and nervous but the activities we do really help to get them talking and they become more animated throughout the sessions. We really try not to talk too much and let them share their thoughts and ideas. Having the youth workers there really helps as they can talk about things together as well as sharing with the group.
What kinds of issues are coming up during the sessions?
Rhoda: Friendships is definitely a big one – so we talk quite a bit about what makes a good friend. One girl told me that she thinks she is a good friend but she realises she is not treated very well by her best friend and so we’ll talk about that and think through solutions together. There is also a lot of social anxiety and I think we are probably seeing more of that because so many of them were isolated during the pandemic. Another issue that has come up a lot is being safe online. A lot of them are online a lot and it’s appealing because they can be whoever they want to be but they often don’t realise that that can open them up to risks too. One girl said recently ‘no-one would lie about their age’ and it was good that that then sparked a discussion in the group.
Leah: Yes, we do see quite high rates of anxiety with the young people as well as quite mature concerns about what’s going in the world and what it is like/going to be like for them. At this age they are beginning to hear and learn about equality, sexism, body image and how they navigate the world as a young woman. As a group we discuss quite heavy topics and it’s apparent how emotionally intelligent these girls are. We speak a lot about the difficulties surrounding being a girl and how that can impact them as they grow up. People tend to underestimate girls of this age and their level of understanding around topics like this. While having this level of awareness at such a young age can be sad, it is also clear that it is not something they want to settle for long term.
What have you learnt from working with groups of girls? Is there anything you’ve changed as the programme has developed?
Leah: Within the first few sessions we realised quite quickly that what these girls really needed was the opportunity to lead on discussions and share their thoughts and opinions about the issues we were addressing. At first they were reluctant to talk about themselves and weren’t keen to respond when asked questions that were ‘me’ centred. Once we changed the perspective and offered the girls the chance to give advice to a character (Daisy) experiencing similar problems they were, the ideas and solutions they came up with were incredible and it showcased their level of insight and understanding to these real life situations. Hearing them speak so openly and honestly often made me think ‘wow, I can’t believe we discussed all of that in one session.’
Rhoda: I think what’s also really powerful is seeing the impact of discussing issues like anxiety and self-esteem with a group of girls that have experienced similar things. It’s often the first time that they’ve met others who are going through some difficult things too and once we start to discuss certain situations you can see them wanting to join in and they start to open up. We also have a group agreement that they don’t have to share and that if they prefer to write things down rather than speak out loud then that’s great too. I think working in groups is so helpful and when they do an activity like creating a ‘Supergirl’ we find they get very animated and we often run out of space to add all their ideas. It also gives us a chance to say how fantastic their ideas and thoughts are and that’s so important as many of them haven’t often heard many positive things about themselves.
Do you have any favourite moments from the LIFT sessions?
Rhoda: For me, it’s those moments where you just see them realise that they are not the only one going through something – they’re like, ‘oh wow someone else feels like this too’. And when they do the ‘Supergirl’ activity and they really get into it and have so much to say.
Leah: One moment that really sticks out to me is during one of the first sessions. We had a girl who was apprehensive to attend and reluctant to join in. She was going through a lot in her personal life and we knew this was a big step for her. While she wasn’t super chatty during the sessions, she was engaged and communicating in ways that worked for her (eye contact, nodding, writing etc). At the end of the session she went up to her mum and said ‘I want to come back’ – I’ll never forget that.