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Re-storying Vulnerability: young people's narratives of 'hard times'.

There is an increasing body of evidence, and growing public concern, about the well-being and mental health of children and young people in the UK. It is clear children and young people are being subject to ever increasing pressures in school, experienced through more exclusive practices, increasingly didactic teaching methods and an intense pressure on academic achievement. There is also a growing body of evidence that young people are struggling with aspects of contemporary UK culture: social media, the pressure to 'perform' and 'achieve' consistently and publicly, in the context of an increasingly hypersexualised culture where oppressive ideas about body-image pre-dominate. Financial and social adversity in families is also becoming more prevalent, often in localised areas: it is now widely accepted that adversity in families, in the form of inequality and discrimination, impacts directly upon young people as well as indirectly through the stress experienced by their parents and carers. At the same time there is an acknowledged lack of infrastructure and resources in mental health services to deal with the increasing number of referrals of distressed children and young people (UNCRC, 3rd June 2016).

We, in the Re-storying Vulnerability Research Group, believe research is urgently needed to understand this emerging situation and to establish the best ways of helping young people who are struggling socially and emotionally. Schools are now becoming a focus of mental-health provision. However, as practitioners based in educational and community contexts, we question the assumption that the discourses and practices associated with ‘mental health’ are necessarily helpful, meaningful or desirable to young people experiencing distress, or for those struggling to manage difficult circumstances.

How a young person's difficulties are understood, how they are talked about and talked to, influences what action is taken. In schools, and culture more generally, descriptions and explanations of 'challenging behaviour' and 'mental health' are often constructed around a vulnerability-transgression binary. Transgressive constructions tend to invoke harmful exclusionary and punitive responses in educational contexts, as well as communities. However, constructions of 'vulnerability', ideas about 'nurture', 'attachment', 'special educational needs/disability' and 'mental illness', although likely to facilitate access to 'help and support', may represent some risk to a young person's identity and agency (Patrick and Brown, 2012, Brown 2014).

Other discourses are also influential. For example, 'adultist' discourse privileges adult knowledge over children's. Within this discourse children and young people's needs and abilities are seen as fundamentally 'different' to adults. As a consequence young people's resistance or protest tends to be ignored or dismissed as 'just typical teenage behaviour' or 'attention-seeking'. Similarily young people are sometimes expected to have 'adult' levels of development and to carry adult responsibilities for their decisions and actions. For example, even quite young children are sometimes held to quite high standards regarding their 'choice-making', especially where 'resistance' is expressed through violence or other 'transgressive' acts.

The influence of different ways of thinking about, talking to, and being with children is evident in everyday talk as well as in more formal dialogue. It can sometimes be difficult to make sense of, or to challenge, a way of thinking that has become dominant in any particular setting or context. However, recent research suggests that young people are sensitive to such talk and often perceive engagement with adults who construct who they are and what they are experiencing, as risky. Young people can be quite resistant to ‘help’ and ‘support’ that undermines their sense of competency and normalcy, and they tend to have a practical and network-oriented approach to gaining support (Issakainen and Hanninen, 2016) . These findings run counter to the emphasis upon the identification of ‘vulnerability and risk’ in Govt Guidance to schools, and mental health discourse more widely (Future in Mind, NHS England, 2014).

The 'Re-storying Vulnerability' research group began in June 2016 as a collaboration of professionals working with young people within educational systems: educational psychologists, clinical psychologists, teachers, arts practitioners, psychotherapists and Youth Offending Team workers. We are interested in the effects of 'transgressive', ‘vulnerability’ and 'adultist' discourses, and their positioning of those deemed to be 'vulnerable', 'transgressive', or 'not adult'. We are interested in learning more about how young people respond to, and navigate, narratives about them which are shaped by arbitrary and shifting constructions of responsibility, pathology, blame and moral worth. What strategies of 'resistance and co-operation assist them in preserving or attaining their definition of health and well-being?

Central to our approach is our aim to research with young people: we do not wish to speak for them as we are conscious of how we might unwittingly distort their experience, and perhaps tell our own stories about them, or about ourselves, as professionals working with young people. We are also conscious of the marginalisation experienced by those who find it difficult to narrate, to articulate their voice. With this in mind we are seeking to challenge thinking and practices which differentiate the lived experience of adversity and distress of particular groups, such as, those with significant learning difficulties and those who have become caught up in the criminal justice system. We are currrently exploring and developing research methodologies which reflect this commitment.The prospect of examining theory with young people, of theorizing with them, is exciting for us. We are curious to see how the stories might connect to ideas emerging from neuroscience, psychology, sociology etc, and wonder what form of 'therapeutics' might emerge from young people's perspective.

In our first meeting in June 2016 we were inspired and energised by Dr Charmian Hobbs, an educational psychologist and an experienced narrative therapist and researcher. Charmian shared some narrative practices and theories with us. As a group we began to feel confident that 'reflecting with', and 'researching with' young people was potentially empowering for them and would produce knowledge which was rich in insight, with considerable pragmatic value to policy makers, parents and practitioners, and all those who want to improve conditions for children and young people.

The project will involve hearing, recording and representing young people’s narratives of their experience dealing with adverse circumstances and ‘hard times’, for example, illness (mental/physical), loss, exclusion, loneliness, stress etc.

The project will have several aims:

  • To provide insight into young people’s efforts to support themselves and solve problems and the forms of support they find helpful.
  • To provide insight into young people’s sense-making around adversity and their preferred ways of thinking and talking about these experiences.
  • To develop a digital archive of stories which can be accessed by other young people, parents, professionals etc through a digital resource.
  • To consider ways of privileging young people's voices within educational spaces.

Please do get in touch if you are interested in this project. Your collaboration would be highly valued. My contact details are as follows:

Dr Penny Fogg (Lecturer, DEdCPsy, University of Sheffield)