Lifting the fog of depression and anxiety can be an overwhelming struggle at any stage of life. For youngsters, having to deal with social media and exam pressures only compounds those already complex issues.

But in Colchester, a new outdoors project is providing a lifeline for those struggling to adapt to life at secondary school. The ‘Five Ways to Emotional Wellbeing’ initiative was delivered by Essex Youth Service and Mersea Outdoors having been commissioned by Colchester Borough Council and the Colchester Youth Strategy Group earlier this year.

Two pilots, run by Hannah Thurston, Targeted Youth Advisor at Essex Youth Service, resulted in hugely encouraging outcomes.

“The group is for young people who are showing signs of suffering from early stages of anxiety and borderline depression, but who have not had a diagnosis and can’t cope with the day-to-day pressures,” Hannah explains.

“School pressures are getting worse: GCSE grades, body image, and social media are all contributing factors with how young people feel. As a result some young people then display behaviours which get them into trouble, like shouting at teachers and storming out of the classroom or they become very withdrawn and isolated.  We’re an early intervention project for them.”

All participants so far have been from Year 8 and 9 which were referred by their schools. One loved gymnastics but quit because they became too body conscious and another found himself socially excluded and “lived in his bedroom”.

Both transformed their lives whilst on the seven-week pilot. A mix of classroom and outdoor learning activities, such as orienteering (navigating to identified points using a map) and low ropes obstacle courses developed leadership and teamwork qualities.

“We had some really successful outcomes,” said Hannah.

“The girl who gave up gymnastics was very quiet at the start in our indoor group discussions but her confidence grew throughout the project and really enjoyed the physical activities. Due to their engagement on the project she re-joined their gymnastics group and remembered how much she loved it.

“The young lad who sat in his bedroom all day now cycles to school, rather than getting a lift, and stops and speaks to his classmates along the way. He is now awake at school and ready to learn. He was so tired at the end of our first session but got fitter and said he felt so much happier and fresh being physical.  He felt like he had achieved something, which was amazing.

“Schools don’t always have the time or budget to provide bespoke one-to-one support so through the Local Delivery Pilot, we would love to expand our services countywide and offer a lot more support, especially in deprived areas and possibly expand it to Year 11 students prior to GCSE exam season.”