How to help people with mental health problems feel included in Girlguiding

Beth Taylor, our specialist inclusion advisor for mental health, shares her advice

08 October 2021

One in four people in the UK is affected by a mental health problem, so it’s likely that you or someone in your unit will experience this. We want Girlguiding to be a place where everyone can feel safe and included.

Here Beth Taylor, our specialist inclusion advisor for mental health, shares some things that helped her to fully experience everything guiding has to offer.

‘Girlguiding has been the one thing that has been consistent and safe throughout my life. I have been a Rainbow, Brownie, Guide, Ranger and now I am an adult leader, Queens Guide award candidate and organisational inclusion advisor for mental health.

‘Growing up I was seen as a "difficult child". In 2008, at 13 years old, I went on a district trip to Switzerland over the summer holidays. I was so "naughty" that the leader in charge never wanted to see me again. Come September, I began helping at Rainbows for my Baden-Powell challenge. The leader from the trip walked in at the end, ready for Brownies and probably thought to herself "Oh no, not her".

'I was seen then as a "naughty" teenager, but what was really happening? I was in a mental health crisis, and very good at masking. In 2010, I moved up to The Senior Section. I had an amazing leader, Sam, who gave me so much support and from then on Girlguiding has been key for working through my mental health and staying safe. This is my guide for you on how to include anyone in your unit that might be struggling.’

What does mental health mean to you?

‘We often think of mental health as a person in crisis, but actually everyone has mental health. It’s important to differentiate between mental health and mental illness. Some people have good mental health, some people really struggle. For others it can fluctuate, with them having good days and bad days.

'Mental health can affect people in varying degrees, in the same way as physical health. For example, someone could have a headache, an infection, a broken leg or diabetes. The same goes for mental health. Someone may experience some anxiety and/or depression, whereas others might have more complex conditions such as schizophrenia or personality disorders.'

How can you spot someone is struggling?

‘Some people might be better at masking their struggles than others. There are three key changes which might indicate someone is struggling. There might be changes in behaviour, such as becoming withdrawn from others or not engaging in activities. There might also be changes in their mood and perception. This might include someone becoming more angry, irritable, or tearful, or lashing out.

'An individual might also appear to stop trusting others or have some paranoid ideas. They may also express thoughts of harming themselves or others, or of ending their life. You might also spot some physical signs that someone is struggling. They might appear to be very tired, have little energy, experience excessive weight loss or weight gain or a decline in their personal care.’

How were you included in guiding with your mental health difficulties?

‘I guess this is a really tricky question to answer. When I was a Guide, I wasn’t. Mental health was not as topical, known about or talked about as it is today, and as I explained earlier, I was disregarded as "naughty". When I moved up to The Senior Section, my leader Sam was incredible. I was able to be open with her about what was going on in my head and she was there for me if I wanted to talk. She listened to me and she didn’t judge me but she didn't try to take on a role other than my leader. She never tried to be a therapist, a teacher or my mum. Sam allowed me to take time away from the group if I needed it, and she would check in with me. 

We often think of mental health as a person in crisis, but actually everyone has mental health.

Last year, I decided I wanted to do my Queen’s Guide award, but I had just had my 26th birthday. I had wanted to do it before but couldn't due to my mental health. I wrote to HQ, who granted permission under reasonable adjustments for me to begin the award at 26. Sam is my mentor for the award.

'She’s aware that I still struggle and she remembers that whilst mentoring me. When we discuss my award and the plans that I have she keeps my mental health in mind. She makes sure that I’m happy with the plans, but she’s also very assertive in making sure that I am looking after myself and not taking on too much.'

Here's my advice for leaders who have members struggling with mental health…

  1. Everyone's needs are different. You might have two members that both have anxiety, however each individual will have their own triggers and coping strategies, and these might be completely different. Being aware of this can help you ensure they are included. Girlguiding’s wellbeing action plans be used to identify individual needs. For those with more complex needs, you can use Girlguiding’s adjustment plans.
  2. Don’t be afraid of difficult conversations or disclosures. If a member talks to you about their mental health it means they trust you, and that is a positive first step. Ensure you follow Girlguiding’s safeguarding policy and contact the HQ safeguarding team for advice if you are concerned.
  3. Be aware of particularly vulnerable members. These might include members going through parent separation or difficult family dynamics. They might be experiencing loss, bereavement or friendship difficulties, or appear withdrawn and isolated. These members are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health difficulties.
  4. Check out Girlguiding’s mental health and inclusion e-learning. This will help to equip you with skills to be able to have conversations about mental health, and provide some more ideas for supporting members.
  5. If you notice something, or a member says something to you and it’s still playing on your mind once you’ve had a chance to get home and have made a cup of tea, you should report it. It may turn out to be nothing, but equally raising your concerns means that the necessary support can be put in place if it is needed.

You can find lots more information on mental health and guiding, along with guidance on where to go to get more support, on our website