Confidence is the Bedrock

YPAG was advertised in my school news bulletin. I think you had to be 14, and I was just on the cusp, but I went for it anyway. First, you had to fill out an online form, with a couple of questions, like, say, what your interest in mental health and research is, and why you want to join and that sort of thing. 

Then came the selection day, where you go around in groups talking with researchers, looking at different scenarios. For example: if someone is at a higher risk of inheriting a genetic disorder, should they be told so they could take preventative steps? Is it your right to put that burden on them? Or things more specifically about research. So different types, you know, qualitative, quantitative data, research methods. Then, once I joined, there were meetings, quarterly or slightly more often, all to do with mental health research and getting young people involved.

It’s quite interesting, because when I got older and we were recruiting the new YPAG people, we kind of did the same selection process, but this time we, the members, were running it, instead of the researchers. I started at 13 and now I’m 18, so there’s been a progression to different responsibilities as I’ve become a more senior member.

Obviously, the researchers still have the final say, but, especially in the last few years, it’s very much a matter of exploring; ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to get out of YPAG? How is it going to help you as a person?’. We’re involved in every stage of the process, co-producing research, analysing it, and disseminating it. There’s the core YPAG team. Vanessa is kind of at the front of that. She’s got the most contact with the actual YPAG members. And then we get external researchers coming in, who are just with us for maybe one or two sessions to get our help. It’s definitely gone from them being in charge and us helping, to more of a partnership between researchers and young people. That’s kind of how the group has progressed.

Being a member involves working on different projects, sometimes coming from researchers, sometimes our own projects run by the people who are heading up YPAG – and we provide an element of young people’s perspective to it. So, for instance, we collaborated with Childline. They have a kind of online message board service, where people can post and others can respond. Each of us were allocated a section of the messages in certain topics, such as emotional abuse. And then we’d go through the messages, seeing what we took from them. So, trying to analyse how useful we thought the interactions were and that kind of thing. First it was independent work, and then we could all feed back together in the next meeting.Then we actually met with people from Childline and just told them what we found, how we thought the service could be improved to help people a lot more. Which was definitely very useful for both parties.

I think that’s why a lot of researchers like to use a YPAG – there isn’t much young people’s involvement in research. So, what we could infer from something might be different because we bring different experiences. I think specifically going out of your way to include young people’s perspective is really good, and forward-thinking. I think it just means, overall, research is more likely to be successful, because if you don’t include the perspectives of young people, then the research is much less likely to be relevant. ‘We are the future’, or whatever. So, although it might seem excessive to go to YPAG, and have all of these people analyse it, I really do think it is useful.

Having different perspectives and people going through the data, for me, it kind of emphasises the fact that you don’t need to do everything on your own, in fact it’s good not to do everything on your own.

Involving other people, and their perspective, is always going to get the best result. People of different backgrounds will have different experiences, and therefore offer a different perspective.

You don’t just want one similar voice being heard, you want everyone to have their share. And at the moment, you know, maybe because we’re based in central Oxford, we’re a very white, female-dominated YPAG. Sometimes, you know, it does become clear that we’ll all kind of have similar experiences.

The pandemic has obviously not been great, but it catalysed our thinking about how a digital YPAG could increase the diversity, and allow more people to access it. I didn’t realise how difficult it is to recruit. So, you know, in the initial selection, people have to write a few paragraphs about why they wanted to do it, and we’ve been thinking of kind of scrapping that. Because that might be quite excluding for some people who, although they might be able to communicate really well verbally, writing’s not their strong point, and then they might not be able to access the group. It’s just that awareness of how you’ve got to make allowances because everyone will have different situations. If you have the same thing for everyone, then you’re going to get a very similar group of people and not be able to access the perspectives. And they should be just as much allowed to be involved in research and have that opportunity.

We’ve been trying to think of different ways of making the group more diverse.

Another thing I’ve gotten from YPAG is just a kind of appreciation of the research and how much goes into it. Because there’s so much behind the scenes that you never really get to see, you know. Someone releases a new website or project or something, and you just think, ‘Oh, yeah, they’ve done that. Great.’ But now I understand just how much that means – you create it, then you test it with other people, and then you’ll analyse it. And you need to take care of people’s data. Ethical considerations are relevant to virtually everything you do. So now I really appreciate and respect the amount of work that goes into creating these projects, and the rigour with which that work needs to be conducted.

It did build your confidence, progressing through the group, especially with the changing model of the YPAG, so you’re given more responsibility. When I was 13, I never would have presented really at all. But then, you know, in lockdown, I was presenting alongside Vanessa to two different Oxford University teams. And not just confidence with presenting, but also kind of the belief that, like, you know, you’re meant to be there, that you know your stuff, you don’t feel out of place or an imposter in those kind of situations. I can definitely see how I’ve become more confident outside of the YPAG, too, in terms of meeting people or leading projects. I guess, you know, if you can present to Oxford academics, presenting to your class doesn’t really get to you. Confidence, I just think that’s kind of the bedrock.

What made it possible, I would say, is the trust and respect of the people running the YPAG. Giving us this responsibility, treating us as adults from the get-go. It allows you to build confidence.

Whereas if you’re constantly being treated as a child and that sort of thing, it’s much less likely to happen. It’s not like it forces you to grow up – it enables you to. And just respect for ideas. Being a young person’s group, they come to us specifically for our perspective, so you feel like everything you’re saying is valuable to them.You never feel like what you say is stupid or that sort of thing. I think having that kind of trusting, open, respectful environment, it’s necessary if you’re going to test ideas, it’s necessary for that kind of research, but also it allows you to grow as a person. 

If people around you believe in you and make you feel comfortable, you’re more likely to grow yourself.