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Thirst Youth Café: Bishop's Stortford youth charity combats Covid's impact on mental health of teenagers

Bishop's Stortford Youth Project (BSYP) has been working behind the scenes throughout the coronavirus crisis to support the mental health of the town's teenagers.

The charity, founded in 2013, runs the Thirst Youth Café in South Street, which opened its doors a year later as a social hub for around 300 youngsters aged 11 to 18.

From the start, its aim was to provide a safe space for young people to meet and make friends, helping to reduce loneliness and social isolation by providing activities which increase happiness, wellbeing and mental health.

Thirst Youth Café in Bishop's Stortford (43487545)
Thirst Youth Café in Bishop's Stortford (43487545)

Youth workers like Jake Tucker, who joined the project in 2015 and provides a positive role model as well as advice and encouragement for members, have had to step up that support during the lockdowns, which have been in force for much of the year.

He has been working closely with Ben Nesham, who provides youth mental health support at Bishop's Stortford's GP surgeries and refers youngsters to BSYP's wellbeing sessions.

Jake said: "We currently ask young people to score their emotional health in conversations with them. We try and track that so we can support them well.

Thirst Cafe, Bishops Stortford.Feature. Operations Manager Jake Tucker..Pic: Vikki Lince. (43487670)
Thirst Cafe, Bishops Stortford.Feature. Operations Manager Jake Tucker..Pic: Vikki Lince. (43487670)

"We have 300 young people as registered members. One in three said that the first lockdown affected their emotional health and 50% were worried about the future."

The disruption to education caused by coronavirus has had a significant effect on students.

When schools shut in March, many youngsters were isolated. Jake said: "For a lot of young people, it has meant staying in their rooms for the majority of the day. We spoke to lots of young people about conflict at home."

Many youngsters saw months of hard work preparing for GCSE, BTEC and A-level exams come to nothing. "It caused a lot of confusion and nerves among those we spoke to," said Jake. "Most of them wanted to sit the exams as they'd put so much work into the revision that they felt they could finish well."

To support youngsters during the first lockdown, when schools were shut and the youth café was forced to close its doors, Jake and the team set up Zoom hangouts online to provide a safe space for friends to share their feelings and stay connected. As well as online quizzes and challenges, they used a Strava group to promote exercise and created a Thirst Youth Café digital channel.

Using the scoring system, they continued to monitor the wellbeing of those taking part and identified those most at risk to offer personal support with appropriate safeguarding.

During the summer holidays and early autumn, there was a return to face-to-face fun for the youngsters.

But using the scoring system, Jake and his colleagues found the children and young people "felt lost" without the routine of school. The team organised wellbeing groups for those experiencing anxiety, depression, loneliness and other mental health issues or who were coping with a breakdown in family relationships during Covid-19.

Summer holiday activities included Aqua Splash at Redricks Lake, Sawbridgeworth, and the café organised a competition to come up with a smoothie recipe to promote healthy eating.

As problems with anti-social behaviour grew in the town, the charity recruited two new part-time staff to join the youth work team in a bid to prevent bigger problems emerging as the pandemic continued.

While schools resumed in September and stayed open during the second, limited lockdown which began on November 5, many classes were sent home after positive Covid-19 tests.

Jake said: "School closures have been difficult for young people but not as bad as the first lockdown, according to the young people we spoke to. But the bubbles system in schools, in year groups, are just as hard because young people don't just have friends in their year groups but throughout the school."

As autumn began, the café followed Covid guidelines and, with permission from the town council, set up outdoor "Thirst in the Garden" sessions in the former Quaker burial ground in Newtown Road next to its South Street premises.

During the last half-term holiday, 86 youngsters took part in a range of online and outdoor activities including a scavenger hunt and a FIFA tournament. Now, as the coronavirus crisis shows no sign of abating, Jake is planning for 2021.

He said: "As a small charity, we will always need to increase our volunteer team, increase our giving and our voice in the community.

"We hope to increase our 'offshoot projects' in 2021, built around the needs of young people. We're looking at running a social action project – young people doing good in the community – and a wellbeing group with Ben Nesham supporting young people who are struggling.

"The project costs around £95,000 a year to run. Because of Covid-19, we've had to make changes to Thirst to ensure we're Covid secure. This has increased our costs and we have the potential for a shortfall this year," said Jake.

"Our biggest need is for people to give monthly to the work of Thirst. People giving £5, £10, £15 a month to us would enable us to plan for the future, enabling us to be around for years to come."

You can sign up at www.give.net/20152252.

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