Nursing studies

The mental health campaign empowering young people to tell their stories

RCN Nursing Student Award winner Mairead Ryan’s MyStoryYour Story campaign combines outreach and political action

  • Mental health nursing student Mairead Ryan helped set up youth-led mental health campaign MyStoryYourStory, based in Belfast
  • The group has successfully lobbied for a mental health champion and greater mental health and well-being support in schools
  • RCN Nurse Awards 2021 judges praised her as a powerful voice for young people and an outstanding advocate for mental health nursing
Mairead Ryan

The lead on a campaign to raise awareness and tackle mental ill health among young people in Northern Ireland has been named RCN Nursing Student of the Year 2021.

Inspired by her personal experience of panic disorder, mental health nursing student Mairead Ryan worked with an experienced youth worker to set up MyStoryYourStory, a campaign to raise the profile of the mental health challenges faced by young people.

A platform for young people to share mental health issues

‘In 2014 I was struggling,’ says Ms Ryan, who recently graduated with a first-class honours degree from Queen’s University Belfast. ‘I came from a family with an alcoholic, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my granny, who was my second mum, died – all in a short space of time.

‘MyStoryYourStory empowers those with mental health issues to tell their stories to help others, providing a platform for young people on the fringes of society’

Mairead Ryan

‘I was diagnosed with panic disorder, but cognitive behavioural therapy changed my life, and I found my purpose. Coming from a low socioeconomic area, I knew that the problems I had faced were not unique to me,’ says Ms Ryan.

‘MyStoryYourStory empowers those with mental health issues to tell their stories to help others, providing a platform for young people on the fringes of society to express their views about their input and care from mental health services.’

When the devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed in 2017, Ms Ryan was alarmed at the political vacuum this created. ‘Suicide rates soared when our government broke down, and no advancements were made in mental health care,’ she says. ‘Not only did this leave the politicians in deadlock, those on the fringes of society were more isolated than ever.’

Outreach campaign visiting schools

The MyStoryYourStory team of young people visited schools for outreach, with 85% of schools and pupils saying the visits made them more aware of how to promote positive mental well-being and how to source help at a time of crisis.

‘MyStoryYourStory offers young people a purpose, increasing self-esteem and enabling them to develop and not let their adversities define them. Many of our young people suffered from mental health illness and were in contact with child and adolescent mental health services. Some had a recent history of suicide attempts.

‘They said the campaign kept them out of hospital and helped them continue their lives, while being able to reflect on their trauma when they were ready.’

Ms Ryan visited schools and hosted drop-in sessions

Ms Ryan recalls one boy who had not spoken to his teacher for a year, but after the outreach visit he told her he had been considering taking his own life.

‘He can access help now because he knows he is not alone any more,’ says Ms Ryan, who was nominated for her award by Queen’s University Belfast senior lecturer in mental health Karen Galway.

Pandemic led to a shift in priorities towards one-to-one support

Ms Galway says: ‘When the Northern Ireland Assembly reconvened in January 2020, MyStoryYourStory lobbied for improved mental health promotion and empowerment while continuing to engage directly with young people.

‘Then in March 2020 the pandemic halted the campaign’s significant momentum. Young people were reporting acute deterioration in their mental health, and Mairead and the team realised that campaigning priorities needed to shift towards one-to-one support via Facebook Messenger and phone calls.’

Ms Ryan used her mental health nurse training and knowledge of local services to support another group member who was in extreme mental distress. ‘This was just one example where Mairead’s intervention helped to save a young person’s life,’ says Ms Galway.

Political successes of the MyStoryYourStory campaign

Through petitions and peaceful protest, the MyStoryYourStory campaign has helped achieve three key aims:

Initiatives that help young people campaign for change

The team at MyStoryYourStory have created a series of new initiatives, including Change Happens When, which enables group members to conduct video interviews with role models or politicians also campaigning for improved mental health services.

Ms Ryan directed a short film called Recovery, which was shown at the Northern Ireland Film Festival, and the group also created a tool kit – PastPresentFutureChange – to guide other young people who want to make societal change but are not sure where to start.

‘This highlights the importance of storytelling as an evidence-based approach to mental health awareness, harnessing the innate power of recreating a story where young people become the authors, editors and publishers of their own narratives,’ says Ms Ryan.

RCN Nursing Awards 2021: all the winners
Ms Ryan on a visit to a school for MyStoryYourStory

Recognition outside of the UK

The MyStoryYourStory campaign has been recognised in the US, and Ms Ryan has represented Northern Ireland at the European Network of Young Advisors and the United Nations Global Youth Forum.

The RCN Nurse Awards judges were hugely impressed by her commitment, passion and leadership. ‘Mairead is an inspiration to young people,’ says University of Glasgow honorary research fellow Margaret Sneddon.

‘Mairead has become a powerful voice for young people with mental health concerns and is an outstanding advocate for mental health nursing’

Margaret Sneddon, awards judge and University of Glasgow honorary research fellow

‘Drawing on her own experience and her education as a mental health nurse she has become a powerful voice for young people with mental health concerns and is an outstanding advocate for mental health nursing.’

The Nursing Student Award is sponsored by professional hand hygiene brand TORK. Healthcare hygiene adviser Gina Court said Ms Ryan’s ambition to promote better mental health services for young people in Northern Ireland made her stand out among a high standard of entries.

‘The initiatives she has led, and her role representing Northern Ireland on an international stage, impressed all of us on the panel,’ she says.

The next project: skills and training for young people

Ms Ryan continues to develop the campaign with her colleagues and has set up a new social enterprise – Voicing the Void – which will offer training to young people to equip them with the skills to deliver outreach sessions and create societal change through storytelling.

She is delighted to win an RCN Nursing Award. ‘I am so proud of the young people involved in the campaign who have acknowledged their adversities and used them to create societal change for mental health services in Northern Ireland,’ she says. ‘It is so empowering for them to be recognised in this way.’

The RCN Nursing Student Award is sponsored by professional hand hygiene brand TORK