The Healthy Youth Centre pilot: promoting healthy lifestyles in a youth centre setting
1 Sep 2013
Sally Wilson, Senior Research Fellow
Youth centres can provide a successful setting for supporting young people in making decisions about many aspects of their health and well-being, according to an evaluation conducted by IES health and well-being researchers. The evaluation looked at a pilot project that promoted health and well-being in four youth centres, resulting in an improvement in young people’s access to advice and information on a range of topics.
In a joint local authority and PCT pilot initiative, four young, part-time youth workers or health ‘leads’ were tasked with promoting health and well-being at four youth centres; each centre differed widely in terms of membership (eg gender and age composition) and existing health and well-being provision. As well as healthy eating and physical fitness, the project addressed potentially sensitive issues such as sex and relationships, emotional health and well-being, drugs and alcohol misuse, and smoking. Central to the project was a holistic approach that considered each young person’s well-being as a whole, rather than as a set of unrelated and separate health elements. This helped to ensure, for example, that factors that can compromise good decision-making about relationships, such as alcohol or low self-esteem, were properly addressed, as well as information needs about safer sex.
As well as looking for outcomes that could potentially have an impact on young peoples’ health, the evaluation examined the process of equipping the leads with the necessary skills for their new roles. The research also sought to understand the nature and level of support the leads required from youth centre managers and other relevant professionals.
The health leads were given specialist training in communicating and influencing skills and were also provided with opportunities to update and boost their knowledge base in the four main health areas. Refresher training on local specialist referral pathways and safeguarding policies and procedures was also provided where needed.
The leads liaised with their project coordinator and managers at their site to build a programme of interventions to match the needs of young people at their respective sites. Activities at youth centres ranged from interactive sessions aimed at small groups (such as making healthy meals in the youth centre kitchen area) to large events led by local stakeholders (such as an anti-bullying presentation). The leads also improved access to health and well-being information at the centres more generally and let members know that they were a contact point for conversations for any well-being-related concerns.
What youth centres have to offer
The project capitalised on what youth centres have to offer as a setting, most of all their informality and sociability. Young people described their youth centre to researchers as 'friendly', 'fun', as a place with 'a positive atmosphere' where 'it's hard to get bored' – arguably very different to the descriptions they might have applied to their school. The age of the leads seemed to be a key reason for the young peoples’ inclination to talk to them about their health concerns. Young people described them as ‘role models’ and leads were seen as sources of advice on issues ranging from personal and social problems to difficult homework.
Building on the rapport they had already established with members prior to the intervention, the leads felt that they had been able to make a significant impact with regard to all of the issues addressed by the pilot, especially through working with young people on a one-to-one basis. Because the leads were seen as a source of information on many subjects, young people felt comfortable talking to them about personal issues such as their relationships or bullying. This offered an advantage over, for example, arranging for a medical professional to visit the sites as young people could be seen approaching the leads without their peers assuming they were seeking information about a health-related matter.
Examples of what worked
Having one lead at each site worked well in terms of responding to young people’s specific needs. The broad remit of the intervention allowed leads to be reactive rather than prescriptive and the leads felt they had been able to help their respective centres to respond to emerging local issues that might otherwise have been overlooked. Given the extent to which young people are influenced by their peers, it was viewed as very important that the pilot had enabled staff to provide information and advice quickly before potentially negative behaviours (such as self body piercing and negative influences of gang culture on young women) became more widespread.
Mainstream youth centre events were used imaginatively to promote health issues. For example, a rave attended by more than 250 senior youth club members was used as an opportunity to provide information about safer sex and offer STI tests. Relevant calendar events were also used as opportunities to raise awareness of health-related topics. An International Women’s Day event provided a platform to raise well-being issues alongside careers, make-up and fashion. In this case, the female-only environment facilitated more open discussion of concerns around emotional health, friendships and relationships.
IES’s research shows that the pilot has made a tangible difference to young people’s access to advice and information. Senior youth centre staff believed that young people are better informed as a direct result of the pilot and reported a positive shift in culture at all of the sites. In addition, the leads felt confident in their ability to respond to the health and well-being needs of young people and felt that their potential to influence the choices that young people made around health issues was much greater. The research also highlighted the ability of the leads to reach young members who are not engaging with their school environment, arguably those who are most at risk.
The success of the pilot reveals that the traditional school setting is not the only place to deliver health interventions and that less formal settings can work well, especially in matters that can be difficult for young people to talk about. However, youth centre-based interventions like these are dependent on support from training providers and other local stakeholders. A challenge for the future will be ensuring that wider local government cuts and changes in the way public health services are organised do not limit access to health-related services in environments where young people feel at ease.