Every time Sam Tyrer stands up in a room full of teenagers to speak about the fragility of mental health, he does it with the benefit of first-hand experience.
At the age of 17, the deaths of several people whom he was close to tipped him into depression. It was a dark place where he remained for four years, but which he now draws upon in the hope of helping others.
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Since early last year, Sam has been taking the “Change Talks” programme – which he devised with a qualified mental health nurse – to schools across Lancashire. He has addressed more than 6,000 pupils, encouraging them to think about their own mental health.
“My approach is quite different – there is no point some old professor going in and teaching them the science of it all, they just need to hear from someone who knows what it’s like,” Sam explains.
“I tell them what happened to me and try to give them the hope that they can avoid going down the path which I did. They respond well to that.
“I have had young lads reach out who were privately self-harming – they wouldn’t have spoken to anybody otherwise and may well have gone on to kill themselves.”
Sam never did receive a formal mental health diagnosis – but now aged 25 and a trained gastroenterology nurse, he is confident that he has identified the biggest threat to the mental health of the county’s young people.
While his problems stemmed from personal tragedy, he believes many of the issues being faced by teenagers today can be traced to technology – and the mindset which it manifests.
“Young people become addicted to instant gratification from a young age. Parents chuck them a phone or tablet to play games on and those games teach them that you don’t really need to work to get a reward.
“The next thing, they are getting a dopamine hit by posting a photo on-line and attracting likes. They are not setting goals and challenging themselves – so they have no resilience.
“I even had to ask myself why I was using social media to promote my own work – was it for a purpose or just to get validation from people? So I stopped and focused on the work itself.”
Part of that work led Sam to uncover a startling local statistic which convinced him that supporting young people to maintain good mental health was more important than ever.
A survey which he distributed to 1,200 Lancashire teenagers found that 76 percent of them gave the lowest rating when asked whether they were optimistic about their futures.
“It shows the scale of the problem, which is also bound up with a drug culture among young people,” Sam reflects.
He is currently working as the early intervention lead for the county’s mental health trust, Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust. The organisation originally commissioned Sam for six months, but that contract has now been extended to three years. The Change Talks programme which he brings with him – made up of six, hour-long sessions – is also now being delivered to parents and teachers.
Sam says his work with young people is the “hardest thing” he has ever done – but he usually sees the difference at the end of each session.
“You can tell the impact it has on them – because they start to treat each other differently and talk about things,” he says.