Podcast Episode 74 We all appreciate the importance of good mental health but sometimes lack the toolbox and even the support to consistently achieve it. This is often the case for young people, particularly those with an additional need. In this episode we are talking with Kimmy Obo from Kooth a UK based organisation offering an innovative way of delivering support when and where young people want it.
Kimmy explains what Kooth offers and how it supports young people particularly at those times where they are not sure who to reach out to. Kimmy also discusses healthy coping strategies that young people can use to manage their mental health and activities that contribute to positive feelings of well-being.
Kooth is an innovative service taking advantage of the benefits that technology can bring to all of us when used in the right ways. But even with the use of technology it is all still about people reaching out and supporting each other reminding each other as Kimmy does that we all have good and bad days and we all need to work on our own positive mental health.Show Full Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to Episode 74 of the Journey Skills podcast. This week we’re talking about mental health and innovative way of enabling young people to manage their mental well-being, get the support when they need it, learn from other young people, and do it all in a non-invasive way.
I’m talking to Kimmy Obongonyinge from Kooth which is a UK only based organisation. So I imagine some of you are now thinking “Well, that’s not much used to me” but bear with me, although maybe you’re not surprised because if you’re a regular listener, you’ll know that we pretty much go around the world. Maybe you’ll even be like me and have the same thoughts that I often have after listening to a few episodes all from the same part of the world and thinking “Right, we need to move there.” There was certainly a moment for me a while back when New York was top of my wish list but I hope that’s what’s unique about the podcast and that we’re sharing so many stories and solutions from all around the world and not everything will apply to everyone, not every story will resonate with you, not every solution will work for you. But even if they don’t, they inform you and I think in every single case they inspire you. It’s all about learning from each other and realising the possibilities out there. And it also gives me hope that somewhere young people are getting the support that they need to live as independently as I want to.
So it’s really about sharing and there are so many people and organisations doing the work needed but all too often we’re unaware of them. Of course, they can always be more options and I know there is a long way to go until we get all the changes we want but it isn’t quite the days I’d imagined when I started up this podcast. So please become a collaborator and if you have an idea, don’t start it without looking around to see if there’s someone gone before you, that someone that you can learn from.
This conversation with Kimmy, she offers some practical tips about how to help our young people manage their mental health, also I think there’s some wider issues that play here, it’s about looking at how technology can aid our young people and make independence a probability, not just a possibility. Many of us, myself included, have a very much love-hate relationship with technology. It does all for our young people better options for independence. My own daughter’s independence is been really aided by being able to use things like contactless payments and accessing online train timetables but then, of course, there is a dreaded social media minefield that presents its own challenges as well.
But in this interview, we see how technology can be utilised into something that could connect people in a positive way. Another thing I’ve been flipped by saying that it probably saves lives as well. This is an amazing idea and I kind of imagine it will take too long before it expands into a much wider audience and helps more people and supports more people with their mental health.
DEBRA: Today I am talking to Kimmy Obongonyinge who works for an organisation called XenZone which is helping young people with their emotional well-being. Welcome, Kimmy!
KIMMY: Thank you, Debra. Yes, just a bit of introduction, my name is Kimmy. I’m incredibly passionate about mental health. I had been since the age of 13 so it’s really great to be working for mental health company like XenZone which provides this really wonderful national service that I’m gonna be telling you more about in a moment. So yeah, I just want you guys to know about it, to know kind of that it is available to you and that it provides completely safe space. It’s very unique to a lot of other services. So yeah, I hope you guys log on later and find this information helpful.
DEBRA: Can you just tell us a little bit about you said you’re passionate about helping people with mental health, can you tell us about your background and how you got to work for this organization, really?
KIMMY: When I was growing up, I was really interested, I’ve always been interested in kind of pediatrics and supporting young people but like most young people, I kind of didn’t know which direction to go in, but when I was diagnosed with ADHD, then I was kind of going through the process of diagnosis and that is when I first kind of really became passionate about mental health because I start to look into my own mind and kind of how my behavior and mental health was linked to things like that.
So yeah, then I studied Psychology at college, I then went on to study Psychology at university, I did an undergraduate degree and when all I came out from university, I worked in a mental health crisis centre called the Haven Centre and where we’re supporting young people who would describe themselves as in mental health crisis, a lot of them did have additional learning needs. We did get a lot of young people with autism, we got a lot of young people with dyslexia and things like that because there is definitely a link between sometimes additional learning needs and mental health as well. It’s because there’s a lot more first to consider if you’ve got an additional learning need.
And then eventually, when my contract was up I went for 3 months and did an internship with the aid support organization there to learn about the relationship between physical health and mental health. And then when I came back, I was looking into jobs and I came across this really amazing role in XenZone where I get to go into schools, raise awareness of the service as well as provide mental health provision in those schools. So that’s how I got involved with this organisation.
DEBRA: Can you tell us about the organisation and what exactly they do?
KIMMY: XenZone is a mental health company but with a twist because a lot of it is about digital mental health support. The reason it came about as an organization was because we saw that actually was this huge gap in mental health provision because a lot of it relies on you being able to meet with individual safe space but we know that actually there were a lot of different barriers that individual’s experience when accessing mental health services and one of the biggest barriers that people experience is just that discomfort of meeting with a complete stranger the first time feeling like you have to divulge and give away all this kind of puzzle information about yourself about your deepest fears and concern with a complete stranger.
So we thought you know what let’s actually create a service that looks about how we can reduce those barriers, let’s make it an online platform. So if we do get an individual who does really struggle from anxiety, who maybe doesn’t feel super confident in social situations, they have a space in which they can talk to someone about how they feel and get support and don’t necessarily have to leave the comfort of their own homes. So we provide the service. At the moment, our strongest service is Kooth which is for (and our most developed service) it’s for young people but we’re also developing service for adults called Qwell in addition to a service specifically the students called Kooth students.
DEBRA: So exactly what happens… what’s the process if someone… so this is all done online, so do you have people online? How does it actually work?
KIMMY: So with Kooth, there’s no voice involved, there’s no video calling involved because we know that just as adults, we can feel a lot of anxiety when it comes to calling people and video calling and things like that. So, we’ve actually made it all what we call asynchronous messaging which is very fancy way of just saying text messaging.
So the way that a young person, if they are looking for support and they do wanna talk to a counselor, the way that they would do that is to something that looks very much like an iMessage conversation or Facebook Messenger conversation or Snapchat conversation, it’s all text-based.
DEBRA: So they just go on the website and they type in their concerns and then someone will come back and feedback to them?
KIMMY: Not quite. So what happens is the young person will type in www.kooth.com then go to kind of the homepage and they would have the option from there to sign in. When they sign in, they have to select the place they live because we are already available in very specific areas of England at the moment because we’re funded by those local authorities. And then the young person would put in other data about themselves, about their age, their ethnicity, and how they perceive their gender. We never any point ask for their name or their exact address. We just ask the place they live so for example if you’ve got a young person who goes to school in London in Harringay, that box there, they’d put Harringay area.
And then once they’re logged in, they have access to loads of different resources, peer-to-peer support as well but if they did want to chat specifically to a counselor, maybe he just wants the space to vent, you could go to Chat Now option which is very, very big and bold. There’s no way you can miss it. And from there, you’re going to small waiting queue. Usually, the wait is from 5-10 minutes, and when a counselor becomes available, they’ll let you know that you have 5 minutes to jump into a chat with them and then from there, you would get the support that you need. And the first kind of conversation would be a very informal assessment just to find out what your concerns are, what is your level of need, what support you want over the next few weeks.
DEBRA: So what kind of things do people contact Kooth with? What kind of concerns do a lot of young people have?
KIMMY: So we got a lot of young people who are struggling with anxiety. I think that in itself is one of the more common mental health disorders that we’ve seen in young people today and that is definitely reflected in the young people that utilize the service. We get a lot of young people who are struggling with exam stress and anxieties around exams, stress around options and often linked to anxiety.
We do see a lot of young people talking about some harm and looking for ways to overcome or to find a more healthy coping strategy. So we get a lot of young people using it for various reasons but I think the most common is definitely anxiety.
But we do get a lot of young people who in situations where you kind of feel like “I don’t know who I can talk to, I don’t know where I can get support from”. We get a lot of young men involved in gangs utilizing our service because they don’t know where else they can get support and it is a completely safe space because it is completely anonymous. Those young people who know that actually they can talk to someone and this information isn’t gonna leave that safe space. So we do get a lot of young people who are involved in situations where they might usually feel like there’s no one who can understand or relate to them and might not know where to go to for support.
DEBRA: Is there a sort of set of strategies that… say for something like anxiety, is there a set of strategies that you guys would recommend people to sort of start with?
KIMMY: So generally, a lot of what the counselors do is to empower the young people to be engaging with face-to-face services and school counselors and things like that or talking to parents, talking to friends about what they’re going through but our counselors are all highly qualified and trained staff so a lot of what they do is not so much talk therapy which is someone what we perceive counseling to be but actually it’s all about being proactive and actually managing your mental health so the counselors will go through cognitive behavioral therapy technique, dialects behavioral therapy techniques (DBT) to enable the young person to kind of look at the things their lives that are causing them maybe stress or anxiety and then go from there, looking at how they can kind of disassociate anxiety with those things that make them feel anxious and maybe helping them to have a more positive perspectives of those things that make them feel anxious rather than focusing on the negative thing.
DEBRA: So you said there’s resources as well available on the website, is that from other people talking about their own experiences like case studies or is that again tactics strategies? What kind of things do you have available?
KIMMY: So there’s a variety, we have a space called Kooth Magazine. I mean, it’s a really great space, we have a huge and a really collective community of young people who use this space. I mean, it’s a space for young people to write an article maybe, to write stories, spoken word piece, a rap, whatever it is that they want to do to express how they’re feeling. So it doesn’t even necessarily have to be directly about mental health and well-being. It could be about a topic they’re passionate about so, for example, the other day I saw a really great article on Black History month where a young person was talking about why it’s important to her and educating other young people on why maybe they could engage with things going on to their community that was related to Black History month.
So, it provides people with a space to share things that they’re passionate and interested about but directly if we’re talking about mental health, there’s also loads of things that young people post on that space relating to mental health so I saw a really nice poem the other day it was called Dark Poem and it was written by a young person who was sharing their experience of depression and loneliness and it was really great because at face value you might think actually that’s really negative but actually, it provided this young person with a space to express how they were feeling and also it provided other young people who are reading that with the opportunity to know that they weren’t alone. That if they ever feel that way, that actually there are other people that feel that way.
So there were comments underneath the poem like Thank you so much for sharing this, it’s really brave of you and there were other comments that said I know exactly how you feel and this is what I do in those situations: I listen to music, I go to the gym, I do this. It’s a really great platform for peer-to-peer support. And then we also have forums as well where young people again can express how they’re feeling in one place under a theme and other young people can comment and post and give advice and strategies on how to deal with that.
DEBRA: And obviously, it’s a much safer than the sort of broader online forums that young people can access generally.
KIMMY: Yeah, definitely. So everything on Kooth is monitored 24/7 and we do something called pre-moderation. So before an article goes up, before a comment on the site goes up, it’s moderated prior to that so we can make sure that the site remained safe and supportive. So nothing will go out without being monitored by our online team if we do think something’s not appropriate we’ll send you a private message and just say “Hey, maybe you want to rethink how you say this.” just because we want to remind you that this is a safe and supportive space. So there is no opportunity for any abuse or anything like that to be on the website because it’s pre-moderated. All of our articles are also monitored by our clinical team as well to make sure that the support and advice that’s given on them is appropriate and is safe for young people too.
DEBRA: Just to talk I suppose in more general terms because as you’ve said this service is only available in small parts of the UK and we’ll come back to where you want Kooth to go in the future but what sort of suggestions would you have for a young person or a parent more likely listening to this and they’re concerned about the mental well-being of their young person who has additional needs. What kind of strategies or what kind of suggestions would you have in a more general sense?
KIMMY: So I think the first step for a parent and for a young person who’s going through a mental health challenge would be to acknowledge that. We all have good and bad days, that mental health is something that every single human being has and just like we can engage in activities that improve our physical health like eating healthy food and exercising. And there are lots of things that we can do, practical things that we can do every day, to contribute to a positive mental health. And also acknowledging that you might be feeling really rubbish today but you might not feel the same way tomorrow. A lot of mental health conditions they’re not chronic, you might be depressed, you might be more vulnerable to feeling depressed but actually there is always a way out.
So this is in general things that I always advise young people to do. They’re really practical and really easy things. They don’t require to go out of your way in any way, it’s just something that you can put into your daily routine to achieve good mental health. And one of the kind of top thing is to get seven to eight hours of sleep. So I know it sounds really, really boredom, really general but sleep has a huge impact on our overall well-being and sleep is important because it enables our bodies to repair, to be fit and ready for another day but alternatively, the lack of sleep can make us grumpy, it can make us feel really rubbish just emotionally and it can make us difficult for us to focus and learn. And regular poor sleep can have a huge impact on our physical and mental health as well going on to the future. That more often than not, a lot of young people aren’t getting seven to eight hours of sleep and that in many ways does contribute to poor conditions like depression and anxiety because your body is not having the opportunity to repair and recuperate.
Another tip would be to try and engage with your hobbies and interests and if you don’t do that already, to find something you can engage with, to find something that you enjoy doing. There’s so many opportunities in your local communities, so many things that young people can access for free, whether youth group or music group. There’s so many things that young people can be doing to keep their minds healthy and to keep our bodies healthy as well and it’s really important to engage with our activities that we enjoy. Even when life is busy because I know when life is busy we can avoid doing the things that we can enjoy or we can neglect those things because we’re trying to keep up to date with our homework or coursework. Then in the process we’re not taking care of ourselves. It’s really important to encourage your children and to encourage your friends or to just to encourage yourself to get out there and to make time for those things that you enjoy doing.
It’s really really important as well to stay organized. So these, like I said, they’re very very general things but staying organized is one of the biggest contributors to anxiety. We get a lot of people using Kooth who anxious because of exam stress because of course back stress, and a lot of the time they could have prevented themselves from being in that situation just by remaining organized.
And just a final tip is to avoid avoiding things that make us feel comfortable or anxious. So today, like I said anxiety is one the more common mental health disorder in children and young people and in adults as well. And many of us avoid the things that make us feel anxious but by avoiding those things that makes us feel uncomfortable and anxious, we’re actually not helping ourselves at all because we’re not training ourselves to build the resilience we need to overcome those situations and it can mean we missed out on a lot of great things and the only way to overcome anxiety is to face it head-on.
I’m not talking about jumping straight into a situation that makes us feel super uncomfortable and super anxious but rather trying to slowly expose ourselves to those situations where we go anxious. So for example, maybe school makes you feel anxious and because of that you’ve been avoiding going into school for a significant amount of time. Instead of avoiding school, maybe try going in one day a week over a couple of hours a day to slowly get yourself back into the routine and build up the resilience to deal with that situation.
DEBRA: Okay, because you mentioned before about the fact, a lot of people are lonely, do you think that even though we’re connected in a social media sense, it seems to me that particularly for young people with additional needs, they can get lonely anyway because they’re sometimes cut off from their peer group because they don’t necessarily have the same freedoms to go out and do things. Do you think that’s a real big contributor? People feeling lonely and thinking that they’re the only person that has felt like that?
KIMMY: Definitely. It’s definitely one of the biggest contributors to depression because we’re then left with ourselves and our negative thoughts that can kind of spiral out control when we’re on our own. So it is really important, but alternatively, there are lots of things that young people can get involved in. Even if you do you have a physical disability and maybe you do you feel trapped in your own home, you feel like you physically can’t get involved in things. There are a lot of opportunities in your community that are accessible for you to get involved in and there are loads of young people that can relate to that feeling of loneliness regardless of why they’re feeling lonely. Sometimes it can be difficult to fight but it’s always worth logging on to your computer or talking to your teacher or your home school worker or whoever is to find out what opportunities are available to you because it is really difficult to go through life on your own. It’s so important to be talking about how we feel but we can’t do that if we don’t have people around us and a network of people around us.
DEBRA: Which is I think why your sort of service is so unique in lots of ways because it can bring people geographically, you don’t have to be there, you can just log-in. Which kind of brings me to the final part of what I want to ask actually was around, what’s the future for the organization because I understand that you get the funding from parts of the UK but being an online service, do you see that being you’re able to offer that service in a much wider geographic way?
KIMMY: Yeah so I mean, actually there are very few parts of the UK that aren’t covered by our service at the moment. The service we provide, it isn’t specific. We don’t, for example, offer one level of the service to some areas and not another to another. We provide the same service in every single area that we’re funded to operate in but the service is undergoing a lot of exciting developments. We’ve got an amazing contract with a charity that supports deaf young people. So our counselors are all undergoing training at the moment to communicate with deaf young people because we understand that the way that you guys communicate via message– the structures and sentences are very different to how we would construct our sentences if you’re not deaf. So when the moment our counselors undergoing that training which is really exciting so we’ll be accessible for deaf young people who are a vulnerable group. I mean, who do struggle more with loneliness as well.
We are really trying to make sure that our service is able to support young men, they’re one of the target groups that we have at the moment. So we’ve got a lot of feedback from young men across the country to find out how we can make sure our service can be more engaging and accessible for them. And we are always working with young people to constantly develop our service. So our service changes a lot from year to year because we’re constantly getting feedback from people and we have Kooth ambassadors as well who provide us with all the feedback too, on how we can make sure that our service stays current and up to date and accessible for all young people, essentially.
DEBRA: Thank you very much for your time, Kimmy.
KIMMY: No problem. Thank you for having me.
DEBRA: Key takeaway? Mental health support can be delivered successfully in different ways in this case online. I think it’s an important takeaway because there’s clearly funding issues around mental health and support that are out there so this is a really innovative way to be able to do it.
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