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Into Tomorrow - making a difference

In July 2020, PwC was invited by the Inclusive Economy Partnership to present its innovative suicide-prevention programme to some of the leading UK's leading figures in businesses, civil society and government departments. The event explored how organisations are working in partnership to tackle challenges associated with money, mental health and debt. 

Steven Boyd, Lead Partner, explains why he got involved with the programme and the difference it's making.

A few years ago, something tragic happened in my life and it made me stop and think very honestly about what I was doing with my life and how I could do more good.

At the time, the firm was just starting to get a special community-based program off the ground and I tentatively started to get involved. However, I very quickly realised it wasn’t something I could support from the sidelines.

The program was centred around suicide prevention and we were working with local charities to think differently about this very difficult problem. Suicide is considered an epidemic in Northern Ireland, which has the highest rate in the UK. In 2018 the rate per 100,000 people here was 18.6, compared to 10.3 in England. Our program sought to put an intense focus on a small number of marginalised young people to really make a difference.

When I first met the young people we were trying to help, I understood how important it was to be fully committed. They lived then at Flax Foyer, a homeless shelter in North Belfast. And I say trying to help because it wasn’t easy - it’s never easy at the start, and it’s still not easy. We’re talking about young people who’ve lived lives most of us can’t even imagine. I realised that, before I got involved, I was unknowingly quite judgemental but within a matter of weeks that judgement disappeared as I started to understand the very distressing backgrounds and how these young people had ended up without a permanent home.  Often self-medicating through alcohol and drugs to address the trauma encountered in their young lives and with a very bleak outlook on their own futures - the word “hopeless” in its truest sense, came to mind.

And I realised that if the coin had flipped differently for me - if not for the support of my wife, my parents and my family, if I’d been born in a different part of the city with all the ongoing challenges that some areas have or if I’d not met and worked with fabulous people who were willing to give me a chance - that could have easily been my life.

These young people are very marginalised with severe mental health issues who’ve basically survived year after year on their own wits, moving from care home to care home as frequently as most people enjoy holidays, and now relying on Flax Foyer to provide shelter.  To get to know and understand these young people has been massively humbling and has really opened my eyes into the legacy which our city’s troubled past has left behind.

By working with Hummingbird Project, KIPPIE and the Bytes Project, we’ve created and now fully fund a programme of support for young people that’s unlike anything we’ve done before. We started by encouraging them to get engaged with literally just ‘something’ - a group meeting, training or coffee and a chat. It’s a low aspiration but this was a group who’d not been able to truly connect with any other programme. They didn’t want to be there, they didn’t see the point of trying any more. The programme had to feel different and we had to find a hook - if we said we were going to do something, we had to do it!  Many of the young people participating simply hadn’t experienced that before.

The key was creating a programme that was completely flexible and wasn’t constrained to how we felt it should work, but one that worked for the individual - in trying a new approach, we knew that we might fail and therefore needed to fail fast and change direction quickly. The 1-2-1 sessions were a critical part of this, because they enabled us to understand the complexities of the issues and barriers that these young people face.  We knew that a one-size fits all approach simply wouldn’t work. It might have taken 6-9 months in some cases to build trust, but by showing them we were here for however long it took, they started to trust us and opened themselves up to learning what they needed to do to look positively at their futures. The first cohort who went through the programme had all initially been classified as being at a level 4 risk category, the most severe; by the end they were all at level 2 or 1 - the majority at 1.

Often we find that what makes the difference in the outcome is the young person hitting rock bottom. They experience a significant crisis, which honestly, is often really uncomfortable for us. However we made the decision that we’d never leave these young people alone regardless of how bad it got.

We also decided that we wouldn’t pay their way out of their circumstances either- they had to take personal responsibility.  Everyone who’s experienced that transformative experience has moved from being hopeless to being fully engaged, almost overnight.  You can see it happening, as they begin to confront their past in a supportive environment, see their aspirations as being possibilities and start to create the life they want. They’ve wanted to progress and move towards these goals, gaining skills and getting into work or simply just building a level of stability into their lives that wasn’t previously there.

Obviously the need for this support increased over lockdown. We spent the first part of this programme working with some of our group so they could start to come out of their one-bed rooms and talk to other people. Then, suddenly, they were forced back into isolation again because of Covid19. As one young man on the programme, with a traumatic childhood, explained, lockdown forced him to be locked back inside his own head without the necessary tools to deal effectively with those memories.  So, we had to find a way to ensure that the level of support never waned. 

They had phones but limited data and no wifi so we couldn’t do virtual calls which most of the rest of us take for granted. Hummingbird had to resort to calling them up and providing telephone support. Now that government restrictions are easing, they’ve been able to meet up again thankfully.

I’ve been so humbled to be part of this initiative, an initiative which really has helped me put my own life in perspective. To get to know these young people and the struggles they’ve come through really has helped me to understand how fortunate so many of us are, and how impactful it can be when we support others who could have had very different lives if the coin had flipped the other way.

By helping these young people change their lives, conversely they have also helped to change mine - something which I never expected, but for which I am enormously grateful.

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