As part of the  European Cohort Development Project (ECDP), the Community Reporter movement has been working with Gorsehill StudiosManchester Metropolitan University and IVO Pilar to explore what the concept of ‘wellbeing’ means to children and young people. As part of this process we've been running Community Reporting training programmes and storytelling activities in Manchester, UK and Zagreb, Croatia. On a surface level, the young people’s stories detailed how factors such as hobbies like sports and videogames, being with friends, eating healthily and sleep all contributed to keeping them well and their overall state of wellbeing. Whilst such accounts of wellbeing enable us to understand what keeps young people well, the interesting aspects of the stories where found in the layers of how such activities support their wellbeing and why is this the case. From across the UK and Croatia story sets we can see that a number of key connections between the stories fall into three distinct but interconnected categories. These are:

  • Physical Wellbeing: This category relates to young people’s physical health – i.e. what they eat, what exercise they do
  • Mental Wellbeing: This category relates to young people’s mental health – i.e. what they feel and how they handle their emotions 
  • Social Wellbeing: This category relates to young people’s social health – i.e. how socially included are the young people

This feature article explores some of the key conclusions from the stories, relating to these key aspects of wellbeing.

Physical Wellbeing

The starting point for many of the stories captured through this process were around factors relating to physical wellbeing. For example, one young person noted that “we all need to sleep but we don’t always get the time to sleep... it is really important to think about our physical state”, and another young person outlined the things that kept them health as being, “exercising, eating healthy things,  running about”. The key aspects of what keeps young people physically well that emerged from the stories were:

  • Eating healthily
  • Exercising
  • Sleeping

These activities were supported by a number of factors. For example, the young people’s main understanding of how to eat healthily (specifically in the case of the Manchester cohort) came from their parents rather than formal education providers such as schools. More so, the children and young people also found a range of ways to exercise, whether than be through team-based sports such as football, individual sports such as dancing or via hobbies such as walking. The concept of sleep was only mentioned specifically in one story, but having time for yourself for individual activities such as reading or listening to music was referenced in a number of stories. What supports young people to find time for themselves is having the skills to prioritise competing demands, the self-awareness to recognise when you need to take time out and a safe space to do this in. Where elements of physical ill-health have been mentioned in the stories, such as playing hobbies that don’t promote physical activities or eating unhealthy things, this is largely due to such activities supporting another form of wellbeing, such as connecting with friends via video-gaming or eating chocolateto enhance your current state of mental health. 

Mental Wellbeing

Whilst the term ‘mental health’ was rarely directly referred to in the stories, what keeps young people emotionally well was a key topic of discussion. This ‘what’ can broadly be categorized into three areas:

  • Physical activities
  • Safe spaces
  • Positive relationships

A number of the young people found that activities that kept them physically well also supported their mental wellbeing. For example, one young person states “I like dancing because when I dance its very powerful. It helps me to express my emotions and how I feel. It helps me to destroy the bad things that are going on in my life”, whilst another young person outlines how exercising helps her mind due to the endorphins it releases. Safe spaces can support young people to have positive mental health by providing them somewhere they can go to in order to express themselves or simply, just be themselves. One young person feels that a youth centre is that space for them, whilst another young person talks about the value of their own bedroom - “nothing affects me in my room... I leave worries outside”. In terms of relationships, connections with peers and family provided support for young people in their time of need. For example, one young person states, “I like to hang out with my friends…when I feel stressed I mostly talk to my friends because they make me feel better. It’s good to talk it out, everything that is on your mind.” What this suggests, is that having people to go to in order to talk about your emotions and experiences is something that young people need in order to support their mental health. In essence, the social capital that young people have is an essential component of their mental wellbeing. When young people express a lack of positive mental health, it seems to be because they don’t have such social connections to support them and try to find coping mechanisms outside of interactions with others.  

Social Wellbeing

These positive relationships support the young people’s social wellbeing and their feelings of inclusion within society. They do so in the following ways:

  • Acceptance
  • Confidence building
  • Affirmation 

In terms of acceptance, the young people describe how friends and family who accept them makes them feel good. For example, one young person outlines how because her family accept her as she is so this enables here “tell them things if [she’s] upset or down”. As discussed, such relationships also support young people’s mental health as they have a support network through which they can explore their emotions. More so, strong social connections with peers and relations also help young people to develop their self-confidence. As one young person outlines in regards to her high school friends – “[they] taught me that making fun of your insecurities can help you overcome them… comfortable in my own skin and that is something I’ll always be grateful for.” Another young person, discuss how the friendships he has made through activities such as football have helped him to enhance his self-esteem. Strong social ties and the opportunity to make them through schooling or hobbies, enable young people to connect with people who can support their personal growth and help them to establish a firm sense of self. Related to this, inclusion in the social sphere can help young people affirm their identity. In two different stories, one from the UK and one from Croatia, young people who dance talk about how positive feedback from people who watch them dance (either online or offline) gives them a boost. These more public, rather than personal connections, and the positive reinforcement from them enable young people to feel more socially included and accepted within society. Only a small number of the stories alluded to young people feeling excluded or excluding themselves from society, and the reasons behind such exclusion were pressures such as the education system and not being able to express themselves. 

Wellbeing as an interconnected and interdependent concept

What we can see from these summative findings is that wellbeing to young people is an interconnected concept made-up of a variety of contributors spanning the physical, mental and social spheres. When looking at wellbeing from this perspective – as a multifaceted entity – we can see how micro, meso and macro level contributors impact on young people’s overall wellness. At a micro level, we can see how the individual activities, eating, drinking and sleeping habits and relationships that young people have are vital components of their world. When these aspects are positive, such as positive friendships and eating healthily we can see how these can support young people’s wellbeing. For example, the young person who uses music and sports to connect with other young people. Yet these factors are impacted on by meso level contexts of the young person’s world. Such contextual considerations include where that young person lives, what services they have access to in their area, the income level of their household and their family structure. For example, the young boy who could not afford to access dance classes was impacted on (initially negatively) by the economic situation of his household. Finally, there are also macro level contributors to young people’s wellbeing that provide the overarching social, cultural and political contexts in which the young people live. For example, the education system in Croatia is larger than the individual young person’s world but it does impact on them as individuals through the pressure to complete study tasks. This interconnectedness of areas of wellbeing and the interdependency of the micro, meso and macro level contributors found within the stories leads us to the conclusion that what wellbeing means for young people cannot be defined purely as key topics or subject areas, but rather in how such topics relate to one another and how individual, local and societal contexts shape these relationships and an individual’s notion of their own wellness. 

A full report on these findings will be available soon, and you can listen to all of the stories gathered here!

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