Visions of excruciating embarrassment flash before the eyes of nearly all the teenagers sitting in a Co Meath school classroom on a bright, wintry weekday morning.
A short time before, they had trooped in nonchalantly to the playing of a Dua Lipa track, chucked their bags beside the white wall before sitting down on two rows of black chairs in a semi-circle in the centre of the room. They had no idea what to expect from the three-hour workshop that the Soar Foundation was laying on for them but missing ordinary classes is always a bonus.
Suddenly, with the introductions over, the 23 transition year (TY) students at Athboy Community School are being told each of them has to come up and sing a song for 30 seconds - a sort of "Athboy's Got Talent" as one of the two chirpy workshop facilitators, Clodagh Leonard, puts it. Fun, not.
One brave lad reckons somebody has to go first and stands up on a table to manage a rendition of Jingle Bells but nobody is rushing to follow. The other facilitator, Mick Donovan, offers two free passes for those willing to share their feelings at that moment in time.
A teenager who is rewarded for his immediate confession of embarrassment says, however, that he will give the pass to a girl in the group. (Only later does it become clear that what appears to an outsider as a romantic gesture is, in fact, a true act of altruism.)
After a few more minutes of nervous giggles, squirming in seats and a little more elucidation on the awkwardness of it all - but with no one else leaping up to sing – they’re put out of their misery. They don’t have to perform after all but instead they’re asked to think back to their five-year-old selves and how they would have probably jumped at the invitation then.
So, what's inhibiting them now, a decade later? What are the voices in their head saying? As the name suggests, the Soar Foundation doesn't want anything holding back our teenagers.
Plenty of us adults are familiar with those internal nags suggesting we’re not good enough, smart enough, fit enough, thin enough, kind enough . . . And we’re living through uncertain times, in the middle of a technological revolution and a global environmental crisis, with social and political change like we have never seen before.
“If you throw that on top of what is already one of the most complex periods in a person’s life, their teenage years, it is no surprise we are in the middle of an anxiety epidemic,” says Mark McDonnell, CEO of Soar. The Union of Students in Ireland reported last August that 38 per cent of third-level students in Ireland are experiencing “extremely severe levels of anxiety”.
While he welcomes how the My World Survey 2 published last November suggests young people find it easier now to talk about mental health issues, “it is also showing that depression, anxiety and self-harm are at an all-time high, whereas levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism are actually falling. That is telling us that being aware of difficulties and speaking about them doesn’t go far enough; that’s where I think Soar comes in.”
The mantra “it’s okay not to feel okay” can be positively dangerous for young people if they just sit in that position, he says. Whereas at Soar, they have always rolled up their sleeves and “met teenagers on the front line and really discussed what is going on for them”, he explains. “Only then can they start to see how they are behaving, what their lives are like, what sort of life they want to live in the future - then they have something to work with.”
Jim Stynes, the late, legendary, Dublin minor footballer who emigrated to achieve Australian Rules stardom, was the inspiration for setting up Soar during the depths of the recession here. But it took a chance meeting between two Irish individuals, Clare All-Star hurler Tony Griffin and clothing businessman Karl Swan to make it happen.
They had both seen and started talking about the powerful 2010 TV documentary Every Heart Beats True: The Jim Stynes Story, that covered his sporting career, his co-founding of the Reach Foundation to inspire teenagers to believe in themselves and his battle against cancer,which was to end his life two years later at the age of 45. Griffin and Swan were both convinced that Irish teenagers needed something similar to Reach.
Cultural differences meant it wasn’t quite the “cut and paste” job that they had envisaged, says McDonnell. But Soar has brought its own brand of inspiration to 38,000 youngsters through programmes both in and outside schools since being set up as a non-profit organisation in Dublin 2012.
Equipping them for life not Leaving Cert
“We see teenage years as such a magical time, so full of hope, opportunity and excitement,” says McDonnell. While he has a problem with the word “potential” – vague and over used – “that is really what it is about: equipping young people to be the best versions of themselves”.
Being unable to grasp life is, to his mind, “the biggest tragedy”. Yet anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and addiction, seem to be insurmountable objects for many youngsters in doing just that.
You could spend your late teenage years and young adulthood “in a bit of a spin, trying to figure yourself out, figure life out”, McDonnell suggests. In such a melee of emotions, choices can seem random.
“We can take that level of chance out of it and give people a grounding earlier, so when they start to embark on those late teenage, early adult years, you are just further along the tracks and able to do amazing formative things during that period, rather than languishing in some kind of limbo.”
As Soar evolved, says McDonnell, it saw more clearly how it was “trying to fill the gap between what teenagers are taught in conventional education and what teenagers really need to equip them for life – especially now when the world is changing more rapidly than ever”. Helping then to think critically and be emotionally agile is more likely to set them up for success in life than rote learning for the Leaving Cert.
“No doubt we go on to assist young people’s mental health but really what we are about is assisting young people live the best life they possibly can. We never felt like we were at the front line of mental health.”
A core part of Soar is training young adult facilitators who bring credible, youthful energy into a room of teenagers, through a suite of programmes ranging from the TY workshop to weekends away and a six-month course.
“Teenagers are telling us they are kind of done with adults coming in and telling them what to do and how to behave,” says McDonnell. “We very much go in there and are open to what they have to teach us and what they have to say.”
In Athboy, the students’ second film segment of the morning is a music video by the band Rudimental, which was inspired by the story of Californian BMX rider Kurt Yaeger who had to have his left leg amputated below the knee after a motorcycle accident and, against all the odds, recovered to return to biking.
The group dissect the biker’s characteristics, which can be summed up as “resilience” – one of Soar’s eight indicators of wellbeing (see panel below) that underpin all workshops. It is resilience and awareness that McDonnell believes young people struggle most with right now.
Universities and employers are consistently telling Soar that graduates find it hard to deal with challenges, setbacks “and even honest feedback”, he says. “To us that is such a shame because it is preventing them from fulfilling what really they are capable of. There is no point in getting 550 points in your Leaving Cert if you haven’t got the emotional literacy to manage your emotions, to handle stress, to deal with conflict and differences in the workplace.”
As for “awareness”, McDonnell believes the distraction of social media and consumer culture is “seriously hampering” the emotional development of today’s “incredibly smart” teenagers, with the “constant battle for their valuable attention”.
“Teenagers are just not getting the head space to press pause, to reflect, to figure out life a little.”
Bonding as a group
For these TY students it all starts to go a whole lot deeper after they are asked to stand in two rows facing each other. They then step forward to an imaginary line running down the middle, go back or remain where they are, to indicate responses to a series of questions thrown at them in turn by Leonard and Donovan, covering issues such as body image and anxiety.
“Step forward if you’ve cried in the last six months” brings most of them to the middle, but they step back in dribs and drabs as the period of time narrows until just three are still standing there to show they’ve shed tears in the last 24 hours.
Donovan suggests the atmosphere in the room has begun to feel a bit different and many heads nod in assent – it’s “more honest now” as one puts it.
There’s further unpeeling of emotions in seated circle sessions where the students are asked if anyone wants to apologise to anyone else in the room – no explanations needed – and later to nominate “hidden gems” among the group.
It’s moving and humbling to hear teenage bravado and banter be suspended for heartfelt contributions from some about events and feelings they have struggled with and who in the group has helped them through. Tears are shed without embarrassment.
The TY co-ordinator at the 590-pupil school, Margaret McGrory, found herself “welling up” several times at the first workshop run here last year but she was more prepared for today. “I don’t know how they do it,” she says of the facilitators afterwards. “They get the kids to open up and the students just love it.”
Last year her students considered it one of the best experiences they had in TY and she saw how it helped to bond the group. “They leave here and they are all very together.”
One of the group, Caitlin Kennedy (16), says she hadn’t a clue what was going to happen and found it “very insightful; to realise that everybody else has struggles, it’s not just me. It makes me feel nice and at ease with everyone else.”
She really liked the “step in and out” game, “as it showed how honest we all were around the room”.
Adam Fletcher (16) said he had been warned that the facilitators would make them cry so he wasn’t expecting to enjoy the workshop. But “I had a great time”, he smiles. “The line game was brilliant.” He says they don’t usually talk as a group like that because everybody has their own set of friends.
Robyn Heavey (15) was also expecting to cry but she found it less emotional than anticipated. “People still opened up but it was not too pressured.”
What she found most valuable for herself were the sessions of apologies and thanks. “It was nice to hear what people had to say about each other because it is not something you’d normally do. I think we bonded a lot.”
What parent wouldn’t like to be a fly on the wall when groups of teenagers start to open up about their thoughts and feelings?
No wonder Soar has discovered a “massive appetite” for a parents’ programme it has recently started bringing into the workplace of its corporate funders such as Davy Stockbrokers and AIB. Some 98 per cent of the nearly €1 million it costs to run the organisation each year comes from private funding.
“We bring teenagers with us,” says CEO Mark McDonnell, who sees his role in these sessions being to broker discussions between teenagers and adults.
The adults, he says, are “on the edge of their seats trying to extract learning out of the teenagers because they crave it so much. It allows you to peep behind the curtains of what it is to be a teenager and you don’t often get that at home.”
What advice does he have to pass on from the wealth of knowledge the 11 full-time Soar staff are accumulating about the current state of teenagers’ minds?
While acknowledging how difficult it is for parents, “with the huge demands on time and energy to provide for a family right now”, McDonnell believes “we’re just not there as much as we should be for our teenagers at a time when they really, really need us.
“It is important to listen properly to teenagers – both their concerns and their dreams. Teenagers are no different to us – they want to be heard, they want to be valued, they want to be respected. They often tell us in our workshops they don’t get that from adults.”
He is also passionate about adults not judging young people. “As soon as you judge a teenager, they won’t come back again. And that is really dangerous.”
He uses the analogy of a swimming pool, where teenagers are out in the middle swimming as they should. Trying things and taking risks is all part of growing up, he stresses, and we shouldn’t run from that. “We should allow them to be out in the middle of the swimming pool doing their thing. Where we need to be as parents is at the edge of the pool, where if they get tired or get into difficulty, they can come over and rest and recover before they go again.”
Being open and warm at those times when teenagers do come to adults for comfort and advice is vital. “Whenever it is, we have to be really switched on and aware in those moments as it can be really different for every teenager.
“Whatever they bring to you, all I would say is do not judge them” he adds, “because in that moment, you’ve lost them.”
One to try at home . . .how well is your teenager?
Eight elements make up the model of wellbeing that Soar has constructed, with the help of Dr Maeve O’Brien, head of the School of Human Development at DCU, and feedback from nearly 30,000 teenagers.
Ask any teenagers in your house to rate themselves on each of those and see where the discussion leads you.