Spark UK is a mental health organisation run by four teenagers: Conor, Bridie, Joseph, and Tegan. They aim to spark the conversation around mental health through social media and creating resources for schools.
Best For You caught up with Spark UK to find out about their work and chat all things mental health and wellbeing.
Where did the idea for Spark UK come from?
Bridie: We’re four teenagers who are passionate about mental health. In our school we became Mental Health Ambassadors, but with the pandemic, things fizzled out.
In December 2020, Conor decided that enough was enough. We’d been friends for quite a while, and we essentially started on a rant!
Tegan: At the moment, people try to hide if they’re struggling with their mental health because you’ve got so many people telling you to just get over it.
It’s sad to hear that that’s still the case. One of the aims of Best For You is to make it easier for young people to speak up and get support when they’re struggling. We know that involves starting conversations to reduce stigma as well as making sure that adults have the knowledge and understanding to help.
Bridie: We’ve all experienced people with poor mental health, so we personally feel like we need to do something about it. No 13 year old should have to talk someone out of suicide, and no 12 year old should have to calm someone else down because the teachers don’t know how to deal with a panic attack.
If we put the information in place, then people can help themselves as well as helping others.
A lot of the time in school, mental health became dangerous. People going through really hard times were hiding it because they didn’t know how to talk about it, and they were worried about being called an ‘emo’ or something like that.
These silly stereotypes we see in school can be easily eradicated if we talk about mental health in a productive and healthy way.
And it would make lessons much easier to teach – a lot of the time kids are just sent out if they’ve got a problem, they’ll just be sent to the nurse. Conor said that kids shouldn’t have to just wait outside to feel better. They should be able to get help in school so that they can resume their education.
People shouldn’t be called problem kids because they have anxiety. They should be just normal people that sometimes get really anxious, or have an anxiety disorder, and they should be able to get help.
You’re totally right. There’s a section on the Best For You website ‘for professionals’, which we hope will help people like teachers to support young people.
Mental health is something that affects pretty much everyone in some way. Best For You aims to help different people (like teachers and sports coaches) understand mental health, adapt what they do so more young people can take part, and know where to signpost young people who need more support.
You mentioned the pandemic. What sort of an impact do you think it’s had on young people and young people’s mental health?
Tegan: It’s had a big impact. Young people especially are very used to going out with their friends, and they’ve always had that sort of routine of going to school. When the pandemic hit, that routine was pretty much abolished.
The only way you could get in contact with people was through your phone, so people were just sat on their own for hours at a time, which isn’t very good for your mental health anyway. I think it made everyone go downhill a bit.
Bridie: We saw a lot of support for older people – and that was really good. But we felt that there was a lack of teenage mental health resources… especially ones that aren’t condescending or blame it on ‘hormones’ or ‘those phones’. So we created them!
Joseph: I think throughout the pandemic, it was an exaggerated form of what it usually is when people are like, ‘Oh, teenagers don’t have mental health’. Through the pandemic, it was like, ‘Teenagers don’t need support because it’s hormones and they’re just growing up. That’s just the way it is’. So it was really tough for a lot of people.
Bridie: Support went into other parts of education. Some people didn’t do any work, and we found that a lot of schools were more concerned about the work than why people weren’t doing it. Disruption to our education was a big issue that meant the mental health side was being ignored.
I think people experienced a lot more anxiety too. A lot of people were terrified of having to go back to education and change their timetables again, because a lot of teenagers rely on the routine and organisation of school. People were nervous about catching COVID, and there was a lot of worry about ‘I don’t want to give it to my grandparents’ and things like that.
Conor: Especially with exam uncertainty. I’m in year 11 – one minute we’re told ‘Your exams will definitely go ahead fine’, the next minute we’re told ‘Oh, it’ll be teacher assessed grades’. It makes it very hard to know what to expect.
Bridie: Me and Tegan did our GCSEs during the pandemic. Some people felt like they didn’t get to learn anything in lockdown, so it wasn’t fair.
There was a lot of people with test anxiety – and going on to do exams at A-level and university, people can’t handle the pressure because they’ve never had to experience it before.
The predicted grades system made a lot more people worry about their grades. It wasn’t in our control any more – it was good that we didn’t have to do proper exams, but we lost our control as individuals.
Everything changed for young people, as it did for everybody, but I think you’re right that a lot of conversations didn’t really take into account what it was like for young people!
Best For You has been in the works for a while, but we fast-tracked the digital platform in response to the pandemic. We knew that COVID would have a massive effect on young people’s mental health – and you’ve explained some of the reasons it’s had such an impact. The digital side of Best For You is there to offer support now, and we’re working on other things like a physical place for signposting and information!
When it comes to mental health, what do you think people should be talking about in schools?
Tegan: How normal it is. No matter who someone is, they can still experience depression and anxiety, even if they’ve had the perfect life so far. People shouldn’t compare themselves and their feelings are completely valid.
Bridie: We’re sick of quick, rushed assemblies and lessons about mental health that are just to get the safeguarding points. We want to talk about it in a way where people feel comfortable.
Joseph: I suppose also exploring and reflecting on what works for people in terms of how to look after their own mental health. Often it’s not simple, but it’s good to know what strategies are available to you and what works best for you, because in most cases, it’s a very personal thing.
It sounds like you’re saying we need to talk about when people aren’t OK, like mental illness, and mental health problems, as well as the fact that everybody has mental health and wellbeing and there are things they can to do look after it. Is that right?
Bridie: Yes! Our aim is to create a curriculum, and we’re slowly going through the process of rolling out more and more lessons. Things like self-care acts and gratitude, that we know have the opportunity to help people, should be spoken about.
We have a social media presence where we talk about mental health and open the discourse around it. In our posts we talk about how everyone has mental health, and some people have mental health issues. And sometimes we may be absolutely fine, but we can always use things to help us.
Definitely. We try to take that approach at Best For You too – the platform has content about wellbeing and looking after yourself, as well as content about mental illnesses and mental health problems.
You’re all so dedicated – it must be busy doing everything for Spark alongside education and having a social life and hobbies! How do you try to keep a balance and take care of yourselves?
Tegan: I think it makes it better that we’re friends! We don’t see it as something we have to do. It’s a very special interest to us and we very much enjoy it.
Bridie: We all have specific roles – I’m Head of Content. Conor is the Founder, so he views everything – he says he takes breaks, but he doesn’t take enough. He’s very hard worker!
But we all understand that we need to take breaks sometimes. if we’re not feeling up to work, we can move it to a later date. We understand that our mental health comes first and we should practice what we preach.
Joseph: We write about the things we’re passionate about. We want to make it relatable to other teenagers. Making resources that are appropriate comes very easily because we write about us and everything we’re going through.
That’s one of the reasons we’re making sure young people have the chance to shape Best For You! We know it won’t work for adults to do this without young people being involved every step of the way – you’re the ones who understand what’s going on in your lives and what kind of information and resources young people need.
What are your aims and hopes for Spark in the future?
Bridie: We aim to have a complete curriculum for primary and secondary schools.
Conor: We want mental health education to be consistent across every school in the UK, so that you grow up from primary school to university being taught coping methods and strategies. We want to be a hub where everything’s relatable, relevant, and consistent.
We also have a big advent calendar campaign, so we want to make that bigger and better every year.
Bridie: At the moment, when we say it’s us four, we mean it is just us four! We’re thinking about opening it up because we want more of an outreach and as many different ideas as possible.