‘Seen, heard and supported’
At a workshop held by UNICEF together with Nepal Scouts, adolescents from across Nepal dove into their personal experiences to share stories and insights into the key mental health issues affecting young people
Nuwakot, Nepal: On a quiet September afternoon at Kakani Rural Municipality in Nuwakot District in central Nepal, a group of young people are sat at large tables set around the Nepal Scouts Training Center, busily sketching on pieces of paper.
The 18 adolescents – members of the Nepal Scouts representing all seven provinces in the country – are working on a ‘River of Life’ exercise, as part of a two-day mental health content creation workshop organized by UNICEF with support from the Z Zurich Foundation. The ‘River of Life’ narrative method was among the various tools used during this workshop to help participants recall and share the stories of their past, present and future, and reflect on the key issues affecting the mental health of children and adolescents.
“We ask them to visualize and draw their lives as a flowing river,” says UNICEF’s Leela Khanal, one of the facilitators.
“They are prompted to dive into their memories and identify various obstacles and opportunities in their paths, before sharing their insights with the group at large.”
It was precisely in view of gathering those insights into the hearts and minds of young people that the workshop had been organized – the third in a series that UNICEF has held with different batches of young Scouts. These direct testimonies related to the challenges, perceptions, hopes and dreams of Nepali adolescents are crucial in informing the design of any mental health intervention or campaign targeted at young people.
Leela says she was “pleasantly surprised” by the openness with which the young participants shared their perspectives and stories.
“We hadn’t been sure we could get them to speak candidly, but they offered up such a wealth of personal experience…. it was very moving, very emotional altogether,” she says.
One of the participants, 17-year-old Bidisha Bhattarai admits that she did not expect to share quite so much about her personal life either, and credits the “safe space” that the facilitators created for bringing her out of her shell.
“We were able to express ourselves freely without worrying about judgement,” she says. “That was the environment we had at the workshop.”
For Bidisha, this sort of environment is exactly what children and adolescents need in their homes, schools and communities, especially during times of mental and emotional turmoil.
“Sometimes, whether intentionally or unintentionally, people around us dismiss our concerns or react aggressively, which can make the situation worse….. children and adolescents need to feel like they are seen and heard and supported,” she says.
Among the key factors contributing to mental health problems or distress among young people that were identified in the workshop included financial circumstances, difficult relationships with parents and caregivers, violence – including at home – and lack of clarity around sex and reproductive health in society, among others. All this was seen to have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, restricting as it did young people’s opportunities for movement, socialization and ventilation.
Roshan Dhakal, 17, another of the workshop participants, says he was glad for the chance to interact with other Scouts from various parts of the country, and to learn from their experiences.
“When you talk openly about mental health with others, it reminds you that you are not alone, and that these problems can happen to everyone,” he says. “We need to keep having such conversations everywhere.”
In an effort to support these conversations, UNICEF is currently working with a production team to develop five short, informative videos on mental health, the content of which will be based on the stories and insights raised during the workshop.
Bidisha hopes that the videos will appeal to and impact young people, and serve as a reminder that their lives are valuable.
This sentiment is echoed by Roshan, who says, “To anyone who is struggling, I would say that whatever they are going through, they should never, ever lose hope.”
To ensure that young people are supported in improving their mental well-being, UNICEF and the Z Zurich Foundation have launched a global partnership spanning seven countries, including Nepal. The partnership seeks to equip adolescents and caregivers to care for their own and each other's mental well-being, as well as promoting positive connections that increase awareness, knowledge and action around mental well-being.