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Amen Dhesi is not your typical 22-year-old.
At such a young age he has set himself a mission to ‘change society’s views on mental health problems’. Growing up in a household where his father suffered from bipolar disorder has made him determined to help and support those in a similar situation or suffering from mental illness themselves.
Healthcare Leader deputy editor Angela Sharda speaks to Amen about Imagine Bradford, a charity he founded in 2016, and how the NHS can better tackle mental health.
Q Why did you decide to move into healthcare and the NHS?
A The reason primarily was my homesituation. My dad fell ill and I receivedsupport from Barnardo’s Young Carers.
Through this support, I thought about how I could use my experience to help others and then joined the committee at Barnardo’s. We would put on sports events. We wrote a funding bid and took people to Dean Clough cooking school.
That help and support gave me inspiration to believe in myself and go on further, to try to better myself. I studied for my GCSEs, A levels and my degree. It’s taken me on a journey now where I am studying for my masters in psychology of modern exercise and am about to start my own company.
Q Can you go into more detail about your home situation?
A My father has bipolar. It was quite difficult; it still is. But we support each other in a way where we understand each other’s needs. It’s a really supportive environment. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dad’s support. I was given these opportunities because of my background, my dad falling ill and where I come from.
Q Growing up with your dad being ill must have been a stressful situation at home. How did you deal with that?
A It was really tough. That came from a mixture of things – the environment,maybe genetics, my lack of self-confidence growing up. I used to eat a lot. I became really overweight and spotty, which led to a lot of acne on my face. There was a very long period when I wasn’t comfortable in who I was. That led to some dark times where I would self-harm and come home and cry.
Q These were very difficult times you faced. Your response was to start up Imagine Bradford, a charity to try to help people in similar situations.
A Yes, Imagine Bradford was launched last year and registered with
Companies House this year. We want to join the battle to de-stigmatise mental health problems in society and do it in a way that educates people about different aspects of mental illness and what it really is – behaviour and how people act. Initially, we created a two-part documentary about me and my mental health journey and put it on Facebook. Once I finish my masters course, we will be creating support groups for young people where we use exercise to create a space where they can engage through sports and feel like they can talk about their difficulties
Q When you were going through a difficult period, what pulled you through to the other side?
A I have only recently become a lot moreresilient and confident, maybe in thelast year or so, and that’s through studying.
The psychology element of my course has really helped me learn skills in confidence, self-esteem, resilience, and creating short and long-term goals. The academic side of the course has helped my own mental health because I am learning about things
I can implement – not only with myself but other people as well.
Q How is Imagine Bradford different from any other mental health charity?
A First of all we wanted to create a pilot scheme in Bradford for young Barnardo’s carers and the issues they have. We ran a focus group with young people, counsellors, service providers and commissioners and we collectively came up with challenges, issues and barriers children may face and how we would overcome them.
Our content will be from the perspective of an individual who has experienced living in an environment with mental health issues and has his own mental health issue. It is lived experience.
Q How will the structure of the charity work?
A I am running the charity. We will be working with Bradford council,
Barnardo’s Young Carers and a digital mental health tool called Making Your Mind Up. We are hoping to work with a carers resource in Shipley, West Yorkshire, One in a Million. The content and delivery of the practical side will start from February 2018. The company is registered. I am just waiting to finish the masters degree, then I can get going.
We are looking to work with existing services and infrastructure to deliver this content to services that have buildings and facilities.
Q Could you give us a breakdown of how much funding you received from the council and your borough to help you?
A We are going to be working with Bradford council. As yet we have received no funding from any funding body. We have applied for National Lottery funding and are waiting to hear from that. Everything we have done so far has been self-funded or we have raised money through crowdfunding.
Q Is enough being done to help people with mental health issues in society at the moment?
A No, not at all. Every single research article I read for my psychology and sport exercise masters states that mental illness will be the biggest global health burden by 2020.
If we scale that down to the UK, whether the problem is cause by stress or a mental health illness or inefficiency, everything is down to a person’s motivation and mindset.
As a nation and as individual councils, not enough is being done to recognise the importance of people’s stress levels and work-life balance. There is pressure on young people such as rising house prices, student debt and not being able to pay things like rent.
A lot of my friends at university have had problems paying their rent. They have accessed the wellbeing team because of the pressures that we face at university. Now I have been incredibly lucky because our university’s wellbeing team is incredibly supportive and accessible. It is very open; it helps people with mental health issues. That cannot be said for every institution. If future generations are being taught about things like self-esteem, confidence and body image, their motivations and aspirations are fulfilled. We are going to create an environment that is positive.
When I was at primary school I had support with my anger issues. However, not all students get this. They get thrown out of class for being disruptive. Teachers at primary school level need to realize that children nowadays are facing so many more pressures than when we were at school, such as the social media pressures. Kids at nine to 10 years old have their smartphones around them all the time and the internet and that’s a very invasive thing.
Q If mental health problems were tackled from school, do you think this would ease the incidence of mental health issues within the UK?
A Fundamentally yes. If we teach children across the board about the basics of self-care and trying to build healthy and positive relationships with those around them, they will gain social support networks. They will know how to deal with these things.
When I was growing up through school, I didn’t know I was spending more than a month at a time feeling down. I couldn’t recognise that I was just going through the motions. If we help children to understand that they can manage their emotions at such a young age it will work as a preventive tool for adults growing up in the future. For instance, when people go to juvenile prison – yes, they have committed a crime but they are still human, they still require mental health support.
Q What advice would you give to young people if they are keen to set up a project like this?
A I’d say if you want to collaborate with me or set up something yourself: formulate your idea, work out your credentials, build up your support network and team and then contact local groups who are running the same thing in your area. Create partnerships and bring your idea to life.
The biggest thing that is holding people back is not chasing their dreams. People will apply for a job that their heart isn’t in. And then they continue working for someone they don’t want to work for. If you eliminate that tendency from the get-go and do something you are passionate about, you are more likely to lead a fulfilling life because you are engaging in a job that you are interested in.
What I would say is, if you want to start an initiative like this, create a name. That’s the hardest thing. With most organisations, as soon as you say their name you know what they are about. Then work out your business structure. Once you have your structure, your team and your plan, you can implement it and it develops and snowballs.
Q More generally, what should the NHS do to tackle mental illness in the wider health system?
A The NHS and the social care system are doing a fantastic job with the means they have. However, the main thing to address is to make the referral process more efficient. People are on waiting lists through no fault of the NHS or the social care system. That is the primary thing that needs to be addressed.
When you look at physical health, if someone has broken their arm, they will be seen swiftly. In mental illness, there will be some people who display behaviours that are of higher need, but other individuals get missed off the system.
There are a lot of people nationally who are going through a lot of emotional pain but because they don’t meet certain criteria they often get missed. So I would say the NHS should streamline the social care and the NHS system in each city so that they work hand in hand. And voluntary sector services should work with the NHS and with the private sector to provide a holistic service for everyone.
I think it is going to be a long process to change society’s views on mental health problems because there’s a lot of stigma and discrimination still.
Amen Dhesi is a mental health campaigner and is studying a MSc in psychology of sport and exercise at Leeds Beckett University