#97 TRENDING IN Mental Health & Self Love 🔥

Introducing Spark UK: the Teens Sparking Conversations About Mental Health

Mental Health & Self Love

March 06, 2023

Mental health has become an increasingly important topic for our generation, yet many young people still struggle to access the support they need or find someone they can talk to.

One group of teenagers – from Devon, in southwest England - is determined to change that.

In 2020, they founded Spark UK; a mental health organization that has been inspiring students, schools, and celebrities alike with their projects to educate and raise awareness of young people’s mental health.

I recently spoke to the charity’s CEO & Founder, 17-year-old Conor Warren, to learn more about their mission to ‘spark the conversation around mental health’.

Photo Courtesy of Spark UK (left to right: Conor Warren, Joseph Carter, Bridie Downing, Tegan Phillips)

Education By Teens, For Teens

Spark UK was founded on the principle that the best way to talk to teenagers about their mental health is for the teenagers themselves to lead the conversation.

Each of the group’s founding members met one another through a mental health ambassador scheme at their high school. They would run events and do presentations, all in aid of raising awareness within their local community. However, after funding for the scheme was cut and the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they decided to continue this work by themselves.

The team set out creating a range of resources and lesson plans that covered topics they felt were lacking from the current mental health curriculum. These were then checked over by mental health professionals and distributed to a small number of schools.

It was then only a matter of months before news of Spark UK’s work started to reach further afield. “In October 2021, we got featured in The Guardian and everything kind of exploded overnight,” Conor tells me. Suddenly, this group of teenagers from a small seaside town had gone from working with less than a dozen schools, to more than 300 schools across the UK.

According to Conor the feedback has been “very positive”, and they are continuing to work to expand the reach of the scheme. “We’re now working with a lot of councils and their education teams to get it rolled out to all schools in their county,” he says, “because we’re not a big corporate charity we very much work on relationships with people and building up those partnerships.”

Schools that do sign up have access to a range of free educational resources for younger and older students, such as lessons about anxiety, self-care, gratitude, and emotions. Outside of school, teens can even get involved in one of their free webinars on important topics like exam stress.

“Our motto is to spark the conversation. We want to get into as many different formats and speak to as many different people, to show that young people have a voice,” Conor says. “At the end of the day, there’s no point in a group of adults sitting and talking about youth mental health. Especially with lockdowns and stuff - nobody really knows about it other than young people.”

A-List Celebrity Supporters

One of Spark UK's most successful ventures has been its annual All-Star Advent Calendar. Each day in December, participants are treated to a video of a well-known personality talking about mental health - with the aim of increasing awareness and raising funds for other mental health charities.

The project had a modest start in 2020 whilst the group was still working on a hyperlocal basis. “We were thinking of a way to make the students [at their school in north Devon] smile every morning, so we got a series of cat videos from YouTube just to try and make everybody laugh,” Conor recalls. However, after coming up with the idea of making the calendar an annual event and trying to get some celebrities involved, “it just kind of spiraled from there”.

“I think we reached ten thousand people in 2021 – we didn’t really do much marketing, so actually we were astounded by it,” he added.

Over the past two years, the advent calendar has been the subject of growing press attention and has even featured A-List celebs such as Dame Emma Thompson and Dame Judi Dench - truly putting the 'star' into 'All-Star Advent'.

However, Conor admits that this was not an easy process and that hundreds of emails are sent in the months preceding the calendar’s release. “It took several months to persuade some people. As a small charity organization that nobody has ever heard of before, it was very difficult to try and get people on board.”

Is there anyone the team is hoping will feature in 2023? “Every year we've got a set few names that we hope for,” says Conor, “we’ve always wanted to get [TV presenters] Ant and Dec; we’ve tried them every year. And I think Tom Holland as well would be somebody that we want to get this year.”

The calendar’s success is a testament to the team’s hard work and dedication to the cause, as well as showing how the initiative has resonated with people. Plus (aside from the glitz and glamour of their celebrity supporters) it most certainly provides another talking point to fulfill their aim of ‘sparking the conversation’.

Self-Care and Gratitude

“One thing that we’re very passionate about is self-care and gratitude,” Conor tells me. “Most people look after their physical health, but not a huge amount of people knowingly look after their mental health.”

As modern-day teenagers in a fast-paced and interconnected world, we can often find ourselves amid a whirlwind of different pressures. This makes it even more important to learn how we can look after our minds. Spark’s 8 Self-Care Acts (see below) respond to this with a range of helpful techniques.

“They’re not going to end a crisis but they can prevent it if you’ve got those coping mechanisms,” says Conor.

The ‘crisis’ Conor is referring to here is, of course, the growing mental health epidemic among young people. A study by UK-based charity Young Minds illustrates the scale of the issue – approximately 83% of people with mental health needs say their mental health declined during the pandemic. The effects of COVID-19, social media, and ongoing global uncertainty are undoubtedly to blame for the most part; but what does Conor believe has had the biggest impact?

“I think social media has had a massive impact,” he says, “Looking at these ‘Love Islanders’ and influencers where they’ve got this ‘perfect’ life when it’s not actually the reality and they put themselves through a lot of struggles to live up to that.”

“I know that even I struggle when I think I am scrolling through TikTok for five minutes and then it turns out about two hours later. Or I see people on Instagram that are out living their best life and I take that at face value. Why am I not doing that? Why am I not going out?”

Photo Courtesy of Spark UK

This then brings me to an important question: how are Conor and the rest of the team balancing running a charity with academic commitments? “This is a question I always get asked, and I’ve never come up with a perfect solution!” he laughs.

“I think I thrive on being busy,” he replies, “I think it’s just understanding those times when I’ve had enough and when I need to take a break and when I need to go out and enjoy my teenage years.”

Planning For The Future

“Our whole unique selling point is that we are a group of teenagers doing everything ourselves and, as much as we wish it not to, we will not be teenagers forever.”

Due to this, the group is already laying down the foundations to keep the conversations going as they move into adulthood.

One of the ways they are doing this is through their new ambassador scheme. “We are developing a training program to train up students around mental health,” Conor says, “then they’ll act as ambassadors to deliver assemblies for their schools as well as working with us.”

“We're just going to continue what we're doing, but on a much bigger and bigger scale. We’ve also just got a new board of advisers, so we are getting a team of seven professionals ranging from all these different walks of life to support us in the work that we do.”

Overall, Conor added, the plan is to continue “reaching as many schools as we can, working with as many young people as we can, and keeping the momentum going and to support as many people as we can.”

Photo Courtesy of Spark UK

Support Spark UK

You can learn more about the work Spark UK are doing on their website, where you can also subscribe to their email newsletter. To stay up-to-date with their latest projects (including the 2023 All-Star Advent Calendar), be sure to follow Spark UK on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Sam Burton
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Sam Burton is the Managing Editor of Interviews at The Teen Magazine.