Features: January 22nd, 2010

By Richard McKie

Talking about health issues with young people can be difficult, particularly those issues that are sensitive. Youth workers are often the first point of contact so they need to have a good understanding and a knowledge of how best to deal with the issues. The Department of Health’s programme ‘You’re Welcome’, which is backed up with e-learning packages, aims to spread best practice.

One of the most challenging issues confronting anyone working directly with young people is how to deal with the huge range of sensitive health related issues that can arise – whether that’s offering information or advice on relationships, sexual health, mental health issues or alcohol and substance misuse.

New programme

All this is set to change through You’re Welcome, – the Department of Health’s criteria for making health services ‘young people friendly.’ The programme is supported by new e-learning packages, which will equip professionals with the knowledge they need to provide consistent and appropriate advice. One of the packages will help youth workers to give young people more confidence to reach out and ask for help.

In many circumstances, Youth Workers provide the first point of call for young people wanting to open up and talk about a wide range of personal concerns. Youth work is a complex field, and over the past ten years we’ve noticed that our workload at the National Youth Agency around important health issues has increased significantly.

Amongst UK teenagers, we currently have some of the highest levels of teenage pregnancy and alcohol and substance misuse anywhere in Europe, so it is even more vital that as Youth Workers we’re well trained to deal with these kinds of issues. We know that young people often find it difficult to ask for help from mainstream health services, and that making care and advice more easily accessible can really enable them to make healthier, more informed life choices.

Support for youth workers

Youth workers aren’t trained health professionals per se, but they do need to have adequate levels of knowledge and the right tools to guide vulnerable young people and to encourage them to open up and talk – and these two initiatives from the Department of Health support youth workers throughout the country, to do just that.

Until now, there have been a number of different courses available for Youth Workers around health issues but they have varied greatly from region to region, and there has been a lot of debate as to what the content of the courses should include. ‘The new e-learning package that’s been developed should make those hurdles a thing of the past, by offering a consistent approach to best practice, so that in the future, anyone working with young people will be able to deliver high quality support – whether they’re youth workers or doctors and nurses in hospitals.

But whilst the programme allows us to share information and learning materials with health professionals, I’m certainly not suggesting that Youth Workers should become substitute nurses. However, I do think that we should be able to talk confidently to young people about their health issues and concerns, in order to help to steer them in the right direction.

Professional development

The programmes will also be crucial in encouraging a broad range of professionals working with young people to invest into their continued professional development in this area, by providing a clear framework through which they can really grapple with how well they’re meeting young people’s needs, from a more holistic point of view.

I am very confident in the quality of the ‘e-learning package because the Department of Health and Royal College of GPs have brought together the knowledge, learning and experiences of those working directly with our young people in producing it, and have made it really easy to access by everyone working in the field.

The e-learning component for example, will mean that youth workers and other professionals will be able to freely access a wide range of high quality, web-based training materials – and because it is available as online learning, they will also be able to learn in their own time and at a pace that suits them. I think this is a particularly valuable tool as many workers volunteer their time on a part-time basis, or may be juggling more than one job.

Youth Workers have long emphasised the importance that a healthy mind and body plays as a foundation for success in life, but it has never been a more timely and urgent issue for us to consider. Good mental as well as physical health is closely linked with how young people achieve as individuals, in school and in their careers. If a young person feels good about themselves, they are more likely to try new challenges and to reach their potential. For me, this is vital for building a young person’s self esteem and is a central pillar of youth work.

My hope is that over time You’re Welcome and the e-learning package will help to raise the bar on the health offer youth workers can make to young people, giving them the confidence to seek help when they need it because they know that they will be treated with respect and get the assistance and advice they need,. I would encourage anyone working with young people to think about these issues and to make full use of this programme and the resources it offers.

Linked to these new developments, anyone involved in non-formal education with young people will also find complementary training and resource materials through The National Youth Agency at www.nya.org.uk/health

Richard McKie is National Youth Agency National Programme Manager.