5 lessons from Strasbourg
1. Mental health matters
The purpose of my trip to Strasbourg was to present a report, launched originally in the Houses of Parliament to the Council of Europe. The report was a discussion regarding children’s mental health and child-friendly justice. The report recorded the best practices of some of the European states that form the Council of Europe and how we can replicate those best practices whilst also addressing areas of improvement. It’s clear that at a regional level mental health is not just a buzzword or merely a popular talking point in a post-modern world.
Professor John Coleman, President of the Association for Young People’s Health noted that there has been a dramatic reduction in the services being provided for children’s mental health – “young people may not be struggling more but there are certainly less services” he told the seminar participants. Where there has been a lack of governmental provision; it has been noted that parents are forming self-help groups to better assist their children, who have been placed on long waiting lists. We need to make sure that in the U.K. we keep the pressure on our policymakers to increase mental health funding and services. A continued push also needs to be provided to ensure young people are at the heart of the creation, measurement, and evaluation of the services that will ultimately serve them.
If we condense this to the micro we see that discussion and attention being provided to mental health should certainly be continued and heightened. A recurring idea from the young people present at the report brainstorming session was the stigma attached to mental health. A path to reducing the stigma can be found in our daily interactions with our friends and family. Striving in our own capacity to remove any stigma by being more intentional in caring about the mental health of those closest to us is vital. A simple ‘how are you doing?’ or ‘is everything okay?’ goes a long way. While some people may not feel comfortable to approach formal services your words and actions can provide the confidence to engage with services and people that can provide professional help.
2. Young people can make a change
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was only twenty-six years old when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott; which served as one of the most effective acts of nonviolent protest in the last century. While much of the Civil Rights movement fame goes (and rightly so) to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC helped to facilitate the March on Washington, Selma Voting Rights Movement, and March to Montgomery – monumental staple pieces in the crest of the Civil Rights Movement. The ambitions, actions, and agenda of the SCLC did not exist in a vacuum. There were other organisations that provided impetus to the achieved outcomes of the Civil Rights Movement, as a whole. One of these groups was founded by an energetic and passionate Ella Baker in 1960. That group was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC stood as one of the major civil rights movement organisations of the 1960s; comprised mostly of college students and young adults. They played a pivotal role in the freedom rides and assisted the SCLC with the 1963 March on Washington and Selma campaigns. Campaigns which helped to bring to a realisation the 1964 Civil Rights Act; which legally brought an end to Jim Crow segregation and the 1965 Voting Rights Act which sought to remove the legal barriers that prevented African-Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote.
At Barack Obama’s town hall in April 2016, he stressed that young people were uniquely placed at such a time to bring about blistering change. Such change the world has never seen before. When I look through the archives of social change and try to find common denominators to explain the events that have shaped the world as we know it today; it always seems to come back to one word: hope. The hope that tomorrow can be better than today. The hope that we can improve and strive to create a better society. The hope that all we see is not all that we can imagine. We, as young people, are uniquely placed to be the stimulant for change. The greatest power of our youth is our naivety to the impossible.
3. Importance of journaling
The idea of taking stock is one that has been thrown around a lot by self-help gurus and personal development writers. If you’ve been following my posts then I’m sure you know this is an idea I hold dearly. In the rush of life, it is so easy to go from one event to another not taking in the fullness of the experiences one has partaken in. Twenty years down the line and you’re trying to look back on everything you’ve been through but it’s a blur. I was told by a mentor once to not trust myself too much with my experiences – that I can always rest easy about retention when I’m penning down my experiences. As Jack London wrote: “Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.”
While I was in Strasbourg I met amazing people at different functions and activities during my short stay. Even though it was only just a bit more than a month ago that I was in Strasbourg if you ask me to recall what I did and all the people that I met while I was there- I wouldn’t be able to give you a fully accurate account of everything and everyone that I met. However, my journal can and with a level of ease my brain could never comprehend. As my journal contains nuances of how I was feeling, how I processed the activities/functions I was participating in and the initial and lasting impressions I may have received from the people that I met. Diet Eman, a young Dutch woman who, with her fiance, Hein Siestma, risked everything to rescue imperiled Jews in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II has spoken of the necessity for her to journal; “This pouring thoughts out on paper has relieved me. I feel better and full of confidence and resolution.”
4. Engage with policy
University has been a tremendous place to exchange ideas. It provides the opportunity to engage in discussions with people that hold opposing ideas; a practice which seems to be a dying art in civic life. Outside of the university, we are beginning, unfortunately, to embrace a false sense of security from remaining in our echo chambers. Discussing our opinions and ideas with people who are staunch in their agreement with us. While this may be a comfortable place for us to be it is not one that is effective for any healthy democracy. Democracy is formed from consensus. Consensus requires discussion and deliberation from differing and opposing factions. When this does not happen we provide fertile ground for extremist ideas to brew and potentially permeate into the mainstream.
While many of the issues we face such as institutional racism, the gender pay gap and increasing inequality would require drastic and substantial changes to the ways in which we function as a society; policy can help bring about significant changes that could actively transform society. The jewels in the crown of the Civil Rights Movement are arguably the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. While these Acts did not remove the attitudes that persisted in the minds of many Americans – they did work to make sure that the law was on the side of African Americans who were now able to appeal to laws of the federal government – thus strengthening their pursuits of civil rights.
In the pursuit of justice, it is important to make sure there are references in law one can appeal to. An engagement with policy is vital – understanding, demonstrating and advocating the rights that have been bestowed to you by your government; will help to provide your case with legitimacy (granted there may be situations that mean your rights may not be entrenched in law). Engagement with policy means also engaging with policymakers – even if they may not share the same political views, ideals, and agenda as you. We owe it to our communities to step out of our echo chambers and reach across the aisle in order to help mould a reasonable consensus.
5. Embrace ‘Wanderlust’
There is a magic that can only be discovered when one leaves their native surroundings and ventures into the unknown. While touring the must-see landmarks is great and certainly has its place, there was a magic in discovering the true Strasbourg. I decided I would go to the Museum of Contemporary Art; feeling rather enlightened, as one tends to be after perusing paintings. I decided I would forsake my trusted Google Maps and take a walk. Destination: anywhere. I saw myself walking over gothic bridges, past picturesque cottages whilst bumping into locals who led me to some of the ‘hidden’ parts of the town. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had all year. There’s a magic in being present. When you are somewhere; aim to be there wholeheartedly. Put to the side the assignments, objectives, and ideas floating around in your mind, that are concerned with another moment, and immerse yourself completely in the experience.
Additional Information from Strasbourg:
My impressions from the seminar and report launch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brWBKFnX3jc
In this video several participants of the London seminar share their impressions from this event and discuss what the Council of Europe member states, parliamentarians and young people can do in order to improve the well-being of every child: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okJuHH11MWw
Link to the seminar publication can be found here: http://website-pace.net/documents/19855/4247088/20180424-ChildMentalHealth-EN.pdf/863ffa38-22a1-4269-8a87-0a2d41f12faa