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It is just a small part of who I am


Youth work and youth with mental problems.


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Brussels, 2016, February 25, 11.00 am.

The Youth work party is having their meeting in the Justus Lipsius building. The Youth work party is a group of high ranking civil servants who are representing their country and are discussing youth policies. They are all friendly and involved people but the meeting itself (and the building where it takes place) is rather formal. The main topic discussed is “Youth work and youth with mental problems”, which was placed on the agenda by the Dutch presidency.

The youth work party has already started to discuss this topic when some external speakers, who were invited, can take the floor. The first (young) speaker starts with: “My name is Marion* and Borderline is just a small part of who I am”. BAM! that changes the whole atmosphere. It leads to lively discussions about the subject and the awareness that this is important.


Within youth work Stephan is just a bit speedy and needs to do things to get rid of his energy but he is not stigmatised as ADHD

Youth work and youth with mental problems is a hot topic. According to the World Health Organization the amount of young people with mental problems is increasing in most countries in Europe. One out of five young people experiences mental health issues. To put more resources in helping those youngsters is logical since the human brain is still developing and growing until the age of 25. That means also that interventions and coaching can have much more results than later in life.

The question is not if youth work can play a role in this. Youth work is already doing this without even realising it or being recognised for it.

Within youth work Stephan is just a bit speedy and needs to do things to get rid of his energy but he is not stigmatised as ADHD. Claire is not having a depression but is sometimes quiet and than a talk about “what’s up” can help. Hakim is not autistic but he is sometimes in his own world. And yes we do see that Paivï is basically eating every day fast food but we are not going to attack her on that. We will take care that she will be a volunteer in our new cooking workshop and make her responsible for finding healthy recipies. Mark has a hard drug problem for which we do not condemn him but we will talk to him about how another life could be and, if he wishes, arrange a placement in a hospital for detox and than help him to find a job.

It is not nice to have mental problems but youth work is involving young people who suffer from it. They are, like all users of youth work services, stimulated to participate and take responsibilities. Actually, despite the fact that youth work is not a magic wand, active citizenship might be part of the way out. Being active in the local youth centre and taking up responsibilities in an environment which is not threatening might help to focus on other things, higher self esteem, having a social environment with peers and no longer hiding feelings.

Having a mental problem does not mean a young person can’t participate. As long as other participants know it and respect the situation. There are many examples of young people with mental problems who are active and take responsibilities. Not because they are allowed to but, despite their situation, they are doing a great job and are appreciated for it.

They are doing a great job and are appreciated for it

The question is why Youth work is a such good tool for this target group. Some of the underlying principles of youth work might help to answer that question:

  • There is a a low threshold, everybody is welcome.
  • It is voluntary, no pressure.
  • A professional is steering the group processes
  • You don’t have to be the best in something.
  • There is space to find out what “your thing” is.
  • You are not a problem, you have some problems.
  • Youth work is always looking for the potentials.
  • Youth work plays an active role in destigmatization.


But of course there are things to improve

  • Better cooperation with other professionals – mostly the health sector.
  • Recognition of expertise between the youth work sector and the health sector.
  • More room for learning how to recognise mental problems in the training of youth workers.
  • Youth workers knowing what to do if a mental health problem “explodes” during a youth activity.


It did not end there in Brussels. The Netherlands and Finland decided to take it further and organise a peer learning group on the topic. Two of their meetings did already happen in Amsterdam and Helsinki. The closing event will be at the end of 2017 in Rotterdam.

Young people with mental problems are not crazy and they might have some problems but they themselves are not a problem. They are normal youngsters with a little backpack. Youth work services are a very good place to get that backpack of the shoulders, open it, see what is inside and talk about it.

*names changed

by Marc Boes (2017)

Marc Boes started his career as a youth worker in 1984 and is today managing director of Stichting JONG and poywe.

Photo Youth Working Party © Marc Boes


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