Youth mental health and wellbeing is a very big issue in Australia. A 2019 youth mental health report by Mission Australian and the Black Dog Institute showed almost one in four young people was experiencing mental health challenges. With COVID-19 leading to increased loneliness and joblessness as well as a lack of social engagement, young Australians need now more than ever the right support to manage - and thrive - through life’s challenges. A group of nine teenage girls from Chester Hill High School took in their stride to bring that much needed support to their peers.
Mariama, Destiny, Lisa, Lyn, Zeenat, Vivian, Tallara, Milly, Kate,* nine Year 9 students from Chester Hill High School, began their Helmsman Project journey at the start of February 2020. When COVID-19 put a halt to all school interventions on 16 March, the girls had already had the opportunity to participate in a full-day design thinking community project workshop, a three-day outdoor adventure education camp, a work experience day and in excess of 40 hours of professional coaching, all of which supported them in beginning to develop critical life skills such as goal setting, agency, self-confidence, self-regulation, resilience and others.
Their cohort teacher, Jeff Bullen, reflected on the initial journey the group experienced:
“They were thrown in the deep end battling through a rigorous three-day adventure camp. During this camp, the group was challenged and pushed out of their comfort zones. The girls all developed their teamwork and personal confidence, focus and determination which would be drawn upon during follow up coaching sessions. Students then participated in weekly coaching sessions guided by the expert knowledge and care on The Helmsman Project coaches. The purpose of these sessions were initially to reflect on what they had achieved and developed during the adventure camp and then to work on a community project as a student-led team.”
When schools returned in May, the group rose to the challenge of completing their coaching sessions remotely. “Having our coach there to bring us back together and support us really helped us move forward,” said Zeenat.
Using the skills learnt during the initial part of the program and with the support of their Helmsman Project coach and teacher, the group pursued working on their community project.
“Their project was completely student-driven and it involved immense effort and coordination to continue their community project through the COVID-19 lock down and restrictions,” said Jeff.
The girls agreed to focus on the topic of mental health. “People in school want to talk about it [mental health] but don’t know what to do or say,” Mariama explained.
They also felt that mental health is still very misunderstood and it is important for young people to be more comfortable talking openly about the topic to help future generations.
“I wanted people to understand the extent of mental health. It impacts your entire life and all of us want people to understand that it is a big issue that needs to be spoken about. Especially for our generation, it impacts more people with access to technology and social media, there are more things that can make you feel not okay,” Mariama said.
They decided to create a collection of posters with inspirational quotes and messages for the students’ return to campus, thinking that the school community would deeply benefit from the visual reminders to promote positive wellbeing and mental health. They worked remotely, yet collaboratively, to create over 60 hand-drawn posters, using online platforms to brainstorm the quotes and messages for their project. The posters were displayed around the school with a written message composed by the girls:
We are a group of Year 9 girls who are eager to improve the outlook of the Cheso community. Due to the impact of the COVID-19 lock down and associated life pressures, we decided to make posters with positive messages to put around the school. These posters are to spread awareness about mental health and how we can do little things to help ourselves and friends. We hope that they bring smiles to the students' faces and encourage students to talk about how they feel.
The posters immediately had a positive impact on the school community with many students praising the group for their project and even copying down the positive messages into their personal diaries. “A lot of people have come to me saying how good the posters are. A lot of people have really appreciated them,” Mariama said.
The project has also had a positive personal impact on each member in the group. One of the students, Kate, felt more motivated with schooling commitments after playing a significant role in bringing this community project to life. Another student said their communication, organisation and teamwork skills had improved. And most students expressed being more socially confident, and appreciative of the friendships they had formed by working together. The group also shared increased confidence by seeing the impact their project had on the community, as well as feeling more connected.
“Even though what we did is very little, it’s still impacting some people and I see that and it makes me feel better,” concluded Lyn.
To extend the impact of their project, the group provided copies of their posters to their local community centres and libraries. Their hard work was appreciated by the community, even being featured in the Canterbury Bankstown local newspaper!
In wrapping up the program, the girls’ cohort teacher shared with The Helmsman Project:
“This truly has been a memorable program for my students, they have developed lifelong independent learning and teamwork skills. They also supported each other through the tough times of this year and passed that on to the students and community. The Helmsman Project has been a vital program to the development of students at Chester Hill High School for the past seven years and the school is forever grateful for the time and effort that they put in to help students and community,” said Jeff.
The Helmsman Project is extremely proud of this group for executing such a powerful community project and for persevering through the additional challenges and hurdles caused by COVID-19.
*Pseudonyms have been used for some student names for privacy.