Dedicated youth councillors work for their contemporaries

Young people are not immune from the stresses of the current economic climate, members of the Donegal Youth Council said recently.

Young people are not immune from the stresses of the current economic climate, members of the Donegal Youth Council said recently.

At the youth council annual general meeting in October of 2011, half of the more than 100 young people present said they were thinking of emigrating, youth councillors said.

“It was amazing to see the number of youth who see themselves emigrating -- the amount of people who put up their hands,” said Youth Cllr. Denholm McDermott, a third-year student at St. Columba’s College in Stranorlar.

“If there is no opportunity here ... it isn’t like they want to, but it has to be done,” said Youth Councillor Jane Gormley, a fifth-year student at Loreto Letterkenny. The councillors said that young people thinking of studying abroad or emigrating plan to return to Ireland in the future.

But they said the pressures of the struggling economy are felt by young people of all ages. Councillors said teenagers whose older siblings had their driver’s license at their age are still waiting because of the cost of lessons. Youngsters notice they are not getting the bicycle they wanted. Some students make up excuses for not attending social outings because they do not want to ask their parents for the money to go.

“Some young people felt really guilty about asking parents to do anything,” said Youth Cllr. Katie Porter, a Deele College transition-year student.

The youth councillors said that many students who are considering third-level education are looking at studies that will find them employment or where they could receive a scholarship, rather than the field that may interest them most.

“They are predicting jobs market five years down the line,” said Youth Cllr. Patrick Matthews, a fourth-year student at Carndonagh Community School.

Youth Cllr. Porter is working on a youth council booklet on coping with recession, a project that received support from the O2 Think Big programme.

“It’s everyday ways to save and cope with stress – how to support family members who lost a job,” said Youth Cllr. Porter. She said they hope the booklet will distributed to schools or be available on line in September.

“The Youth Council recognizes this is a recession and people are losing their jobs,” Youth Cllr. McDermott said. He said young people are looking for summer jobs, and some are giving money toward family expenses.

“We were all brought up in the Celtic Tiger – a lot of people were well-to-do,” Youth Cllr. Porter said.

“We probably needed to be brought down to earth, but not this suddenly,” said Youth Cllr. Matthews.

Mental health a priority

The Donegal Youth Council have identified mental health as a priority for the current term, and youth councillors have played an integral role in setting up the county’s first early and brief mental health drop-in support service for young people.

Working with the national Jigsaw and Headstrong programmes, Donegal youth councillors pushed for the programme to be rolled out in Donegal and sat on the committee overseeing its implementation.

The youth council was set up in 2002 to encourage and enable young people in the county to participate in the democratic decision-making process. The 34 current members of the council are democratically elected by their peers from five electoral areas, mirroring the geographical make-up of the county council. Unlike the county council, youth councillors are not affiliated with any political party.

The youth council works with county councillors and statutory agencies to bring the concerns of Donegal youth to decision-making tables around the county and country.

“If you bring something to us we’ll bring it up,” said Youth Cllr. Matthews.

During a recent day-long youth council session, six councillors spoke about the work the council has been doing on mental-health issues. Their goal is to make health services youth-friendly and approachable, and to remove the stigma from seeking help.

The mental health support service will be Jigsaw’s first in Donegal. Youth Cllr. Leanne McLaughlin, a fourth-year student at Moville Community College, and Youth Cllr. Gormley were on the panel that interviewed the project manager, and councillors sat in on meetings where planning of the service was agreed.

The youth council was involved in decisions made and consulted on every step, said Youth Cllr. Gormley. In fact, councillors were at a training session at Headstrong offices in Dublin when they ran into Tony Bates, founding director of the National Centre for Youth Mental Health.

“Lucky enough he was there at the time,” said Youth Cllr. Michael McDevitt, fourth-year student at Garmscoil Chú Uladh, Béal an Átha Móir.

But the councillors were more than lucky. They took the opportunity to speak with Dr. Bates about the need for the Jigsaw service in Donegal. Jigsaw brings community services and supports together around young people to better meet their mental health needs. The Donegal councillors emphasised the need for a service that was youth friendly and approachable, Youth Cllr. Gormley said.

When the service is rolled out in Donegal there will be a hub in Letterkenny and training in other parts of the county. Youth Cllr. Matthews said they would like to see training offered to interested volunteers in each electoral area, identifying such people as teachers and people in the GAA -- those who young people would feel safe approaching. Youth Cllrs. Matthews, McDevitt, McLaughlin and Gormley are also working on a video for young people that will detail mental health services available in the county, another project supported by O2’s Think Big.

Bringing issues to the top

Mental-health awareness colours other activities the youth council organises. There were “free hugs” at the annual Party in the Park in Letterkenny. Youth Cllrs. McLaughlin and Gormley and Youth Cllr. Shiofra O’Toole have organised mental-health awareness weeks at schools, offering information on positive body image, self-esteem, body and mind issues.

Youth councillors said they have received good support from county councillors and the council executive. County Manager Seamus Neely has called the youth council a key feature of the broad work of Donegal County Development Board and the county council over the past 10 years, saying that youth councillors have engaged with members of the council, the development board, council officials and other agencies.

“Their contributions are valued and very welcome, and have influenced policy and developments in a positive way,” Mr. Neely said. The manager wanted to recognize the efforts of the youth council over the years “and the broad range of young people represented by them.  I also wish to recognise the commitment  and cooperation  of schools throughout the county.” He said the council looked forward to their ongoing partnership with the youth council.

The youth council is also forging professional relationships with other agencies. For example, youth councillors had the opportunity to speak with Gordon Jeyes, national director of children and family services for the Health Service Executive, delivering a presentation on issues of child health.

For Youth Cllr. McDevitt, the need for counsellors in schools has been a particular interest.

“Politicians are always talking about how young people have nowhere to go to talk to people,” Cllr. McDevitt said. “I felt there should be a counselling service in the school.” During the discussion with Mr. Jeyes, Youth Cllr. McDevitt spoke of the need for school counsellors. And like any responsible councillor, Youth Cllr. McDevitt followed up on the meeting.

“I emailed him to see how he’s getting on,” Youth Cllr. McDevitt said. Mr. Jeyes informed the youth councillor that the money was not there to fund the service at the time. Speaking with the members of the youth council leaves the distinct impression that this will not be the last Mr. Jeyes hears from them.

Youth council members also include Áran Quinn, Abbey Vocational School, Donegal Town; Áine Duffy, Coláiste Cholmcille, Ballyshannon; Tiarnan Neil, St. Catherine’s Vocational School, Killybegs; Rachael McNulty, Coláiste Cholmcille, Ballyshannon; Conor Cunningham, Abbey Vocational School, Donegal Town; Susanna Breslin, Magh Ene Secondary School, Bundoran; Ultan Pringle, St Catherine’s Vocational School, Killybegs; Megan Colhoun, Deele College, Raphoe; Bridget Corry, Finn Valley College, Stranorlar; Christopher Kelly, Royal & Prior, Raphoe; Shaun McMenamin, St Columba’s College, Stranorlar; Jamie Mac Uiginn, Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, Ghaoth Dobhair; Katie Molloy, St. Columba’s College, Stranorlar; Michael Lennon, PCC, Falcarragh; Ronan Gildea, Crana College, Buncrana; Sally Byrne, Carndonagh Community School, Carndonagh; Ellen Lavelle, Crana College, Buncrana; Caolan Gallagher, Scoil Mhuire, Buncrana; Domhnaill Harkin, Scoil Mhuire, Buncrana; Eímear Ní Éanígh, Coláiste Ailligh, Letterkenny; Anna Bonnor, Loreto College, Milford; Catherine Stewart, Loreto College, Milford; Connor Sheils, Loreto College, Milford; Shiofra O’Toole, Loreto College, Milford; Jaisev Devil, St. Eunan’s College, Letterkenny; Kyle Kildea, St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny; Molly Bonar, Loreto Letterkenny; Marli Kerr, Errigal College, Letterkenny.