Clubs where teenagers discover ways to help themselves

Foróige groups create powerful projects around eating disorders and mental health

Teenagers know they are guinea pigs when it comes to the impact of social media on every area of their lives.

The part the internet can play in encouraging eating disorders definitely falls on the negative side of the equation, although the availability of online information and support to counter such mental health difficulties is a positive.

"We are the first generation to have grown up with social media," says Darragh McBrearty (16), one of a group of 15 young people in Buncrana, Co Donegal, who believe eating disorders and the need for healthy eating is one of the most pressing issues among their peers.

Celebrity culture puts huge pressure on young people, he says, and teenagers can pick up on celebrities’ endorsements of diets and routines, thinking this will help them look like their idols.


“Unfortunately, it does become unhealthy.”

Niamh McGrath (17) agrees: "People like Kendall Jenner, you see how thin she is, it's almost unnatural. Young teenage girls, even boys, looking up to those people and thinking 'I want that body, I need that body'."

McBrearty and McGrath are speaking on behalf of Buncrana Foróige Club which chose this topic for a project they will showcase at the Youth Citizenship Awards in Dublin's National Indoor Arena in Blanchardstown on April 13th, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Foróige's citizenship programme. The national youth organisation works with more than 50,000 people aged 10-18, through volunteer-led clubs and staff-led youth projects.

The work of youth centres gives a perspective on teenagers that is not often seen in the media, nor always in homes or schools either. They are places where young people can meet and collaborate, away from the gaze of parents and teachers who predominate the rest of their lives. And teenagers choosing to talk to other teenagers about eating disorders is instructive for parents and educators alike.

As part of their “Healthy Bodies” project, the Buncrana group devised a 15-question online survey that was completed by 101 people ranging in age from 12 to 24 in their community.

The finding that most surprised McGrath was 25 per cent of people saying they did not regard obesity as an eating disorder.

“That kind of shocked me a bit, to see just how uneducated people are about eating disorders.” And only 30 per cent of survey respondents said they felt they were well educated on eating disorders.

“That shows how much we need to do in the community to educate more people on these topics because they’re really important,” she says.

Now in fifth year, the only time McGrath remembers eating disorders coming up at school was during home economics classes. “It was only touched on briefly and there was no helpline mentioned.” She doesn’t recall it coming up as part of SPHE (social, personal and health education), “which is where you would think it would come up”.

Different schools have a different focus when it comes to mental health issues, says Fiona Flynn, youth development officer with Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland. "We are aware there is a significant gap in the type of information that would be available in different schools."

Sensitive topic

Eating disorders is “such a sensitive topic, it has to be handled carefully”, she says, acknowledging that it could be very daunting for individual teachers to address it as part of SPHE classes, which do deal with the wider, related concepts of body image and self-esteem.

However, from this autumn, Bodywhys is rolling out specialised lesson plans that are designed to be easy for teachers to deliver regardless of their knowledge or experience of eating disorders. The presentations, which have already been piloted and include videos and lists of reflective points, were compiled with the help of teenagers, who advised what elements worked and didn’t work for their age group.

It was very encouraging to see people being honest and open about some of the struggles they've had

A programme for primary schools has also been devised in response to parents of younger children contacting the organisation for information and advice. The focus of these age-appropriate lessons for junior infants upwards is on positive body image and there is no mention of eating disorders, Flynn explains.

Traditionally, teenage years have been seen as typically the time when the majority of eating disorders emerge, because it is a stage of life when body image and self-esteem are particularly vulnerable to outside influences.

“What we are seeing now is the age of onset has got much younger,” says Flynn. “I am getting quite a lot of calls from parents of children in primary school, the youngest recently was a child of nine.”

She has worked with the Bodywhys schools programme for the past 10 years and there is a huge demand for their “Be Body Positive” talks. Anecdotally, from talking to teachers, eating disorders have become much more prevalent among school students over the past decade.

She used to be invited into a school because there may have been concern about one pupil, now there are likely to be quite a few the school is worried about. Another big shift is that those would now include boys as well as girls; there’s a growing awareness of how body image is increasingly a male issue too.

Flynn’s observations as a professional chime with what the members of the Buncrana youth club are reporting from their peer group. Their survey findings show:

– 55 per cent don’t have a positive body image;

– 72 per cent compare their bodies to peers and celebrities;

– 53 per cent say they or someone they know have been affected by an eating disorder;

– 43 per cent don’t believe they have a healthy balanced diet;

– 37 per cent take sugar in tea.

That last statistic might sound a bit random but “because we’re Irish and drink so much tea”, explains Darragh, they wanted to get a good indicator of one source of sugar consumption that “is really overlooked in people’s daily lives”.

What McGrath describes as a favourite aspect of the project was a shopping challenge. The idea stemmed from something volunteer leader Andrew Garvey-Williams and his wife had done with their own now adult daughters when they were much younger, giving them a fixed amount of money to shop for a meal to cook themselves.

Members of the Buncrana club did this for the first time last year when they went, in groups of four, to a supermarket with €2 each to pool for ingredients for a two-course dinner for four that they then cooked in the youth centre kitchen.

“This year we wanted to adapt it; as well as having a budget-friendly, cost-effective meal, we wanted to look at the healthier aspect of it,” says McGrath.

Going into an outlet of Aldi, which sponsors Foróige's Youth Citizenship Awards, McGrath's group bought the ingredients for beef chow mein, as well as cookies and ice-cream for dessert "which was not 100 per cent healthy", she concedes. Another group chose granola and yogurt, "they were really going for the healthy side".

“I would love if other clubs would do this,” she says with real passion. “I can see how much our members enjoyed this. Everybody got involved.”

It develops budgeting, shopping, cooking and teamwork skills, she points out. Indeed, these are examples of "transferable life skills" that were talked about at the recent launch by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, of Skills Summary. It is an online tool designed to help young people recognise and measure skills they have learned through youth work and volunteering.

“It would be amazing to brand this as a healthy eating challenge for other clubs to take part in,” adds McGrath, which is something they are hoping to achieve through the citizenship awards.

The citizenship programme “gets people thinking and conversations started”, says Garvey-Williams. He has been impressed by the positive impact this Healthy Eating project has had on the club.

“It was very encouraging to see people being honest and open about some of the struggles they’ve had.” Their constructive approach has also been empowering.

“It is very easy to blame the Government or the [food] producers or the shopkeepers but for these young people to say ‘I am going to look at my own diet and take responsibility for my own eating’ and be able to evaluate and be able make choices and decisions around that, with information and help, that is a hopeful way ahead on issues like this,” he adds.


Teenagers' mental health is also on the minds of those attending the Carrick-on-Suir Neighbourhood Youth Project in Co Tipperary. The local community has been deeply affected by the deaths of at least two young people through suicide in recent years.

A 10-strong group from the youth café in the town centre decided to design and distribute positive quote cards, which have details of support organisations and helplines on the back.

"For young people in Carrick, mental health seems to be a big issue," says youth worker Daryl Walsh. "The idea of the mental health quote cards was a simple, snappy way of putting a positive message out there among the secondary-school community in the town."

From working with young people and talking to schools, he says, young people continue to say that there is a lack of services for them.

“They don’t know where they turn to if they have an issue or if they have anxiety,” says Walsh. He also believes that teenagers can struggle to differentiate between anxiety and stress, unsure as to whether what they are experiencing is a mental health issue.

“What is acceptable stress? Is [the] messaging mixed up,” he wonders, “because stress can be healthy but sometimes young people see stress as a bad thing.”

Berkna Musse (14) is one of the young people involved in this project, which recently won a Garda Award and is being submitted for the Foróige Citizenship Awards.

“From personal experience, I have met kids who are dealing with a lot of things and they don’t know who to talk to and they don’t trust their schools. They are not comfortable to talk to schools,” she says.

It's a sentiment echoed by Owen Dunthy (14), who believes the visibility around attending a school counsellor – "they call you out [of class]" – can be a deterrent to seeking help.

He thinks the twin pressures of social media and school work play a big part in teenage anxiety. People are under pressure all the time to make themselves look as good as possible in photos that are being shared through social media, while some teachers can be very negative, eroding students’ self-confidence and then they give up on everything, he says.

The cards, with sayings such as “Every day is a second chance”, were left in the schools for students to pick up if they wished and the first batch went quickly. Not everybody who took a card is going to study it, they may just pop it in their pocket, acknowledges Walsh.

“But if just one or two young people use the services from the card we have provided, that is a help.”

How one project worked: Hospice fundraising

Teenagers in Castlebar wanted to contribute in some way to the first Mayo Roscommon hospice centre, which is due to open in their town later this year.

But with a fund-raising target of €15 million, they reckoned any money they could raise would only be a pittance overall. So, the second-year group at Castlebar Foróige Club discussed what else they could do.

Having invited the hospice's chief executive, Martina Jennings, to talk to them at the club, they learned there was going to be a teenage room in the hospice, for young visitors or patients to use.

“After brainstorming a load of different ideas, we came up with a mosaic installation for the teenage room. We were really keen to do it,” says Áine Fox (14). “Instead of just fund-raising money we wanted to add something more personal, that would leave a permanent mark.”

Starting in January, more than 50 of them were involved, splitting into teams that each had different roles.

Mia Ludden (13), who was in charge of design and construction, says they chose the theme of landscape and seascape. The piece, measuring 2.4m by 2.5m is called "The Flight of the Swallows", depicting birds flying over land and sea, "symbolising the journey of life".

They successfully applied for an art grant from Mayo County Council and a local tile shop donated tiles and boards. As well as their regular Friday-night meetings, the group gathered every Sunday morning in the studio of one of their leaders, Aoife Ludden, who is an art teacher, and constructed the mosaic on four big boards, using thousands of pieces, all different sizes and colours, from cut and smashed tiles.

The artwork will be installed in the hospice when the building work is complete. Meanwhile, the group has created a small, portable version to bring to the Youth Citizenship Awards, along with photos and video of the process shot by four Transition Year students in the club.

Amy Doyle (16) says they are also constructing a website, "Making a Difference with Mosaics", detailing their contribution to the hospice. They hope it might inspire other teenagers to take on projects like this, she adds, as it shows: "You can actually help out the community, even though you're a teenager."