Life

Belfast peer mentoring project building a model for better mental health in schools

The Endeavour project in four Belfast schools is training young male mentors to help younger pupils in distress. One of the facilitators, Gary Symington, spoke to Gail Bell about how the project is set to change lives

Gary Symington, left, with Banjo Bannon and pupils of St Malachy's College. Picture by Hugh Russell
Gail Bell

EXAM stress, social media pressures, sustaining the 'right' image... all are familiar anxieties for Gary Symington, youth worker with Lighthouse suicide and prevention charity in north Belfast.

He sees the angst of young men at first hand and is now bringing help right into the classroom at four Belfast schools through the early intervention Endeavour project funded by Comic Relief.

Although just one year into a three-year programme, there have already been 37 student mentors trained to help struggling younger students who feel more comfortable talking about their problems to those their own age.

"The Endeavour project is all about building teams of peer mentors in schools with the aim of changing young male attitudes towards mental health using sport as an engagement tool," explains Gary, who benefited from early intervention himself as a young teenager growing up in "the madness" of the Twinbrook area in west Belfast.

"Sport and positive adult role models saved me at that age and helped steer me into a career of youth work," he says. "I had several friends killed in car accidents through joyriding, but being part of a cycling club gave me the direction I needed.

"My cycling coach was a guy called Eddie Rafter, and he, along with my parents, were big influences at a time when joyriding was a popular and common form of entertainment in our estate, every single night. It was the thing to do and if you weren’t in the car, you were outside watching. I was car-mad, but didn’t get involved myself; cycling saved me – I needed to turn up for training the next day."

Gary become a volunteer in his local youth centre and later became involved in the cross-community project started by the late Gordon Wilson, The Spirit of Enniskillen, going on to work as a volunteer co-ordinator and taking groups of young people on transformative trips abroad, to Germany and the US.

"Due to everything that happened to me in my youth and all that I saw happening to friends around me, I was inspired to do this type of work and help young people who can easily be influenced and pulled the wrong way," he says. "I have been involved in youth work for 25 years – and at Lighthouse for eight – and I firmly believe strong, positive male role models are vital for young men today."

The Lighthouse Endeavour project – partnering with the Streetbeat Youth Project in Shankill and YEHA Project, Ardoyne – is the only one funded by Comic Relief in Northern Ireland and targets four schools in areas of deprivation in north Belfast where rates of male suicide are above average.

The schools – St Malachy's College, Edmond Rice College, Belfast Boys' Model School and Blessed Trinity College on the Antrim Road – have all had Year 13 students complete an eight-week programme, gaining an OCN Level 2 qualification in Peer Mentoring in the process.

As well as training mentors and using sport to engage younger pupils, a special event was arranged recently at St Malachy's College with well-known Everest mountaineer Banjo (Terence) Bannon, who is a firefighter based at the Springfield Road Fire Station in Belfast and also a qualified youth worker, working with young men on probation in Dundalk.

"If anyone is an inspirational role model, I think Banjo is," says Gary, who met the south Armagh adventurer through youth work, specifically the Terry Enright mountaineering challenge for young people. "He grew up in a housing estate in Newry and lost his dad when he was very young. The theme of his talk was resilience and feeling equipped to conquer your own mountains."

Gary Symington, youth worker with Lighthouse suicide and prevention charity in north Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

With recent research carried out by the YEHA project revealing a high percentage of young people prefer to talk to people their own age, Gary believes the peer mentoring project will prove pivotal in changing cultures within and outside school.

"The whole idea is about building relationships and sport in a school setting – where we have a captive audience – is a perfect way to do that," he says. "At St Malachy’s, for instance, we recently organised for an outdoor climbing wall to be set up; half the mentors took a workshop with the younger pupils, while the other half were involved in team building exercises and then they swapped around.

"We also took some of the pupils on mountain-biking activities and we have booked an outdoor residential at Greenhill YMCA later in June for some of the young people with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder). Even two days of adventure can have a real and lasting impact."

Parents are also being kept informed and updated: a parent’s evening at St Malachy’s last month comprised additional presentations from Yee-Haw and also CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) as signposting to other services is seen as an important aspect of the work.

Peer mentoring in itself is a proven, powerful model, according to Gary, who, over the years, has trained many young people to be peer educators, many of whom have gone on to become leading lights in youth counselling projects themselves.

"Historically, young men don’t always come forward to talk, yet not dealing with emotional problems can manifest itself in lots of different ways and also in later life," he says. "One of the participants from a listening and talking group I organised at Lighthouse a few years ago is now coming back to help organise a week of drama for young people from north Belfast during the summer.

"Jordan Baker is a perfect example of someone who has benefited from counselling services and is now using his own experience to empower others. He was bereaved by suicide and had reached the stage where he was suicidal himself until he attended counselling at Lighthouse and became involved in the group.

"Now, he's very much involved in the local drama scene, has just completed his OCN Level 2 in Youth Work and is in the process of setting up a community-based business to train teachers around ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) using drama as a tool.

"Stories like this are encouraging because they send out the message that it's OK to not be OK and it's OK to go and talk to someone about it."

:: For more information on Lighthouse projects, visit lighthousecharity.com

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