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Roman Kemp to present BBC documentary on declining youth mental health


Roman Kemp to present BBC documentary on declining youth mental health

Broadcaster Roman Kemp knows first-hand the impact of serious mental health issues.

In 2020 his best friend passed away and Roman made Our Silent Emergency, a candid and personal documentary exploring mental health and suicide. He encouraged those in need to talk to friends, family and professionals, but now strives to move the conversation on from talking about mental health, to discovering what action is needed to support those suffering.

Roman has always been open about his own struggles with mental health and now, more than ever, that conversation is a huge part of his life.

On a daily basis, Capital Radio presenter, Roman is contacted by young people who are struggling. With people turning to him for advice, he’s questioning whether or not there is a worsening mental health crisis and asking if these young people should be offered more support in their own communities.

Now a BBC documentary – Roman Kemp: The Fight for Young Lives – follows Roman as he immerses himself in schools, youth centres and treatment settings around the country, as well as meeting with experts, charities and visiting the Houses of Parliament to try and understand the potential solutions for improving the mental health of young people in the UK today.

Ultimately, Roman hopes to gather expertise and advice from those dedicated to supporting young people in need, and focus his findings towards those who have the power to make a difference.

Why did you decide to make this film following BBC Documentary Our Silent Emergency? Can you explain a bit about the journey you’ve been on?

After the last film ended, I went through a couple of years of pushing that narrative; everyone needs to talk more, the general public needs to do their bit, be the hero to their friends. There came a point when I started to wonder ‘have we done our bit, and what’s next?’. Because what I kept seeing is the numbers were just getting worse and worse, and I wanted to know why that was. OK, so we’ve seen what we have to do but what’s the real action that needs to happen and what’s the current state of that action? What help is actually out there when someone builds that courage? What I was realising is that people were talking more, but the help wasn’t there for them.

In the first film I told Joe’s story. I felt like I was telling my story in understanding grief and understanding what had happened. We were left with a call out to the public to talk more, and to friends to be heroes to one another. With this one, it’s: you’ve been the hero, you’ve got someone to talk, where do they actually go? It’s me trying to work out what help is actually out there and where do people go and what can they do and what is lacking?

What does that help actually look like? I’ve heard so many people say, ‘we just can’t get the help’. After people talk, what do they do? Should we be getting lessons in schools? Could the NHS do more? Could CAMHs [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services] do more? Trying to work out where the problem lies. Why are these numbers – in terms of deaths – still so high? And why are they not getting better?

What needs to be done now?

More funding in terms of prevention. There is a lot of money that is spent on postvention and intervention, but you need to stop the problem before it even arises. You need to get into schools, you need to be able to provide those mental health support teams, that can help someone, when they get to adult life, they know how to deal with these issues. They are not presenting at A&E trying to work out what is happening with their brain, it would have been already learnt and talked about at school. That’s a massive thing in this documentary, me going out asking what help do they need? Teachers are under so much stress. It was an eye opener.

Do you feel pressure to help now people associate you with this subject?

No, not at all. I have a very different view to it; I feel like I’ve seen both sides to it. I’ve come from the side of the person that wanted to take their own life, and also on the side where someone has taken their own life and that person is your best friend. So, you’ve seen the grief side of it, but you’ve also seen their side of it. I’m doing this for Joe and his family. Also in a way, I’m doing this for me. You just know this problem is going to keep happening. Unless someone does it, it’s not going to change. Sometimes for things to happen, there needs to be that one catalyst.

Why do you think there is such an epidemic of mental health issues amongst young people?

Firstly, I’m glad you said ‘young people’, because there is this massive thing about it being a young male thing – and yes, it is – but I also believe that it’s been so spilt – it’s males and females. It’s young boys, its young girls, and I’d call it a mental health pandemic.

We’ve been through the Covid pandemic. That pandemic was absolutely horrendous. Kids missed so much of school and it is key development parts of school. I’m not saying they missed their maths lesson… they are going through puberty, they are missing out on social interactions with their peers, understanding who their friends are, sexually who they are, their relationships, that in itself is tough.

Another thing that kids have to deal with is the pressures of exams. The pressures of good results. The pressure is so bad on kids to get those grades that no wonder we are seeing poor mental health. I think that’s something that needs to be respected. If we are going to put that pressure on kids then something needs to be there to support them.

Back when I was a kid, if there was a disaster somewhere – and earthquake – I would only be exposed to that horrific news if I saw it in the newspaper or the news on telly that night. Nowadays, within 2 minutes a child has the capability of seeing it on their phone. Therefore, what’s happening is there is an exponential growth that’s side by side with technology and exposure to bad news.

Tell me about some of the people you’ve met. What have you learnt from them? 

I met a lot of incredible schools and a lot of incredible charities. The thing that really stood out for me, the saddest thing, the jobs that should be done, in my opinion, by people in power, are having to be done by these charities. These are jobs that are saving children’s lives and it’s almost like they are jobs that are being forgotten about. As far as being able to control a mental health crisis within their school – these are everyday people that are trying to put out fires left, right and centre with no training, but they are doing their best, because these are children that they are trying to save. Those are the types of people that we have been meeting with.

What I want to do is be able to meet the whole range of people, because what we constantly heard when we were doing the research in terms of how we can fix things – constantly it was you need to speak to this person or this person or this person…. So what we did is we went everywhere.

I spoke to CAMHs, I spoke to the NHS, I spoke to parents, I spoke to teachers, headmasters, headmistresses, I reached out to politicians, to be able to find out what needs to be done.

In the film you are calling for change. Can you tell me about some of the action you took, including the Open Letter you wrote to the Government?

The letter was figuring it out as I go. And it wasn’t until those last few days I decided to do it and it was a last resort. People are not being listened to. I’m someone who is privileged and has a platform, so I’m going to have to use that. To me it’s a sad state of affairs that that is the case but I think it happened in the right way, because what I was able to do was, having spoken to these different parties – CAHMs, teachers – I was able to pin point and nail down – what’s the easiest win here – what’s the thing that can get this ball rolling? And that was the mental health support teams in schools – the target of how many there are in schools in the UK.

What is the one single thing you’d change to help improve the mental health of young people?

It would be that every school in the UK has a mental health support team.

What’s happening at the minute in the UK is if a child experienced some form of trauma, when you take that into adult life it will re-emerge in poor mental health. It may well emerge into self-harm, drugs or alcohol abuse. Even as far as suicide. It will come back at some point in your life. So, if you look at the chain of events, the earlier you address that trauma, and that trauma can come from anything. Imagine a child goes into school, and they have been sexually abused, a witness or a victim of domestic violence, even as far as there’s an energy bill crisis going on, there’s a food crisis going on – imagine growing up in a home like that.

They have no one to speak to in school. A teacher may not want to have that conversation – and, rightly so – they don’t feel trained enough, they haven’t got the qualifications to be able to have that conversation in a safe manner.

So, if that child doesn’t have anywhere to go, the danger is that they are just going to hold that trauma in for the rest of their lives. And it will re-emerge into something bad.

So, my idea, and what I would like to see, is that every school – even if one child is having those types of thoughts – that they have someone that they could go to, to talk to and to be properly cared for. 

Do you think things have changed since you made Our Silent Emergency. Is depression and suicidal thoughts less ‘taboo’ – do you feel more people are sharing?

Yes, I do. I don’t think it’s just my film it’s a sign of the times. It’s the way we are progressing. My message on this is that I really do think we are close to change, I really do believe we have come on a long way, and I really do think that we are getting better and those numbers can change, but it is just the final hurdle is getting that systematic change.

The people in power to be able to press that button to say ‘okay, we recognise the problem’ and here’s the action that can help us. It’s understanding the issues and what we need to get better. It’s like everyone’s got a map to the party but we just need someone to open the door.

In Our Silent Emergency you learnt and shared an important technique – asking “Are you OK” twice. Can you tell me about any new techniques you’ve learnt to cope, and support others, with mental health?

I still use that myself. You learn little things when talking about suicide. Saying the word for what it is. Some people view it as a swear word.

I always go back to another thing which is – I saw an article about it the other day – when it comes to dating, people are much better at dates if you’re not looking each other in the eye, if you are going on a walk or something.

Those tough conversations to have with people, I would always say if you want to have a conversation with someone about mental health, about their mental health, about how they are feeling, you will get a better answer if you have that conversation while walking, or in a car, not facing one another. That person isn’t making eye contact with you, and that eye contact will stop someone from opening up as much as you want them to, in my opinion.

Looking at it from a cave man point of view, eye to eye, animals when they look at each other eye to eye they are going to fight. There’s something about being side by side with someone, we are together in this. We’re both making progress. You’re moving, your muscles are going, your blood is flowing. For parents that are worried, say ‘do you want to go on a dog walk?’ something like that. That’s what my mum used to do with me. She used to say why don’t you come and take the dogs for a walk and then she’d have that conversation there. It would never be ‘sit down at the kitchen table and let’s chat’. 

What do you do for your own wellbeing?

Exercise is definitely one for me, it will always be there for me, I think that’s good for anyone. I talk about mental health a lot and that means I’m quite good at seeing the signs in myself quite quickly. It’s little things. Going and playing football with your mates once a week does so much for your mental health that you can probably imagine. It does an amazing thing. It’s that camaraderie, it’s that teamwork, endorphins flowing, blood flowing, that really helps you. It’s also a good place to spot signs in other people – it’s a place where you can see if someone else is a little bit different. Group chats, again, spot that person that’s been a little bit quiet on the group chat that week – check in on them, see what’s going on.

Can you tell me about your own support network?

I have a brilliant friend group; they are everything to me. They were in the last documentary with me. I have friends from when I was 6 years old. That’s really rare to have a group of friends that you’ve had for so long and you are still so close.

I’m the most privileged person there is in my opinion – and when you ask me what privilege is – it’s a loving family – and that’s what I have. I’m constantly given positivity from my family, given love from my family, and I feel like I can ask for it.

For a support network, there is no better.

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