When you think of The Scout Association, you probably picture white, middle class young men dressed in uniforms singing songs around a campfire.
But Scouts is undergoing a drastic rebrand.
In the last year, the organisation has launched campaigns to increase diversity among members and tackle big issues affecting young people, such as mental health.
Considering a HuffPost UK survey recently revealed that almost half of British men have suffered from depression and anxiety, this push to help vulnerable young men across the UK couldn’t have come sooner.
“The stigma around mental health is definitely something that we’re looking to tackle,” Hannah Kentish, UK youth commissioner at The Scout Association tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.
“If we can get our half a million members thinking about mental health on a par with physical health in the next couple of years, in my opinion, that’s the first step to changing perceptions across the UK.”
To tackle subjects like depression, stress and anxiety head-on, The Scout Association has partnered with mental health charity Mind to launched a new campaign called A Million Hands.
The programme aims to be appropriate for every age, including the younger members, called beavers, who are 6-8 years old.
“You can’t open a beaver session and say ‘today we’re going to talk about depression’ but we can have that conversation with older scouts,” Kentish says.
As part of the scheme, beaver unit leaders have been given resource packs around on the topic of “feelings” to work through with the children.
“The packs will develop the beavers’ ability to recognise different feelings and give them the ability to say ‘I know that this makes me happy’ and ‘I know this makes me sad’,” Kentish explains.
“We want them to feel able to talk to people when they are feeling sad.”
For the teenage scouts, unit leaders are being encouraged to take a more practical approach.
The leaders may take older scouts to places where people with mental health issues can go to feel supported. They can also invite people who have experienced mental health issues to their local centre to share their stories with members.
The teenage scouts will then have the opportunity to work with Mind to create campaigns that will raise mental health awareness and tackle stigma in their local area.
Helping to get the young men on board with the project is celebrity adventurer Bear Grylls. In his role as Chief Scout, Grylls appears in a video discussing the topic of mental health with a representative from the charity.
Kentish says: “Scouts gives young men a positive role model in their lives they might not necessarily have at home and gives them a chance to have a support network around them that’s not mum, dad or whoever.
“That’s especially important if they don’t feel like they have the ability to seek help at school.”
Mental health is just one of four key topics the A Million Hands project focuses on.
The topics – dementia, disability, mental wellbeing and clean water/sanitation – were selected after the members completed a survey about the issues they felt most needed to be addressed in society.
But after speaking to three scouts about the pressures facing young men in 2015, it’s clear mental health is the topic that affects the majority of them most directly.
Each of them identified “increased pressures to succeed in school” as one of the biggest challenges facing young men today.
Tom Law, a 16-year-old who has been a scout for 10 years, told us via email: “In the modern world, there are many challenges facing young men, such as academic pressures to do well and get the grades in school, social pressures, especially from peers, often to be the most ‘popular’ or the ‘coolest’, even when that’s perhaps not who you are.
“What the future holds is also another cause for worry and concern. Will I be prepared enough for the big wide world, will employers/universities want me? These are both things, I think, in this age are some of the big concerns, worries and challenges.”
Daniel Payne, also 16 and a scout for nine years, agreed that pressures at school are a prominent challenge.
“It is something I certainly struggle with and especially being able to get the right balance of studying, working and getting enough sleep and socialising,” he said.
Scouts is not moving away from running traditional activities that members earn badges for, such as camping, but the organisation is placing greater focus on helping its members reflect on these activities in a way that will hopefully ease such pressure.
“There’s such a wide variety of badges that you can achieve today, from media and PR to the more classic badges such as camping,” Kentish says.
“These badges all offer scouts the chance to develop valuable skills, but we need to work on how they can present these skills on their CVs in the future.
“If they’ve been scouts their whole lives, rather than saying ‘I like camping’, being able to reflect on their on their skills and saying that they’ve worked on their leadership and teamwork ability will really help them to excel when they apply for jobs.”
Kentish believes part of preparing young men for the future is showing them how to work with young women.
Scouts has been a co-educational organisation for the past 25 years, but the majority of its members (80% of youth members and 70% in the 14-18 age range) are still boys.
Do these young men not need a space of their own, like, for instance, the young women at Girl Guiding UK have?
“I don’t think it’s an issue,” says Kentish. “Our main aim in scouting is to prepare young people for going out into society and enable them to be positive contributors to that society. Society includes both men and women, so by welcoming girls at Scouts, we are preparing young men for the world in which they are going to enter.
“If we can ensure from a young age that boys and girls can work together, we know in the future there will be mutual respect between them.”
While continuing to highlight that young men and young women are equally welcome at Scouts, last year the organisation launched its Better Prepared campaign to improve its diversity and perceived accessibility in other areas.
The heads of the organisation have been visiting 200 of the most deprived areas in the UK where there has never been Scout units, or where Scout units in the past have fallen through.
They continue to visit schools, community centres and families in these places to target funding in ways that will have the highest benefit for that area.
“It’s about finding those who wouldn’t perhaps think scouting is for them. People in those areas might think scouting is for middle class white people, for example, and that’s the kind of stereotype that we want to dispel,” Kentish says.
“Scouting is for everyone, not matter what their income level is, what their background is, what their gender or sexuality is. We’re trying to break down those barriers.
“People tend to take one look at a scout and focus on the uniform and what they’re wearing, but we’re trying to get people to focus on what scouts are achieving.”
In recent years we’ve seen Girl Guiding UK become more political, showing its support for the No More Page 3 campaign and partnering with Dove to tackle issues around body image, so with A Million Hands and Better Prepared, is The Scout Association following their lead?
“What we’ve really put an onus on, rather than anything being political in any way, is the raw idea of young people making a difference with issues that are important to them,” Kentish says.
“Rather than lobbying people, we’re trying to make that difference ourselves and be part of the change that is going to make society a better place.
“The best thing about A Million Hands is that there is that choice where the young people can choose which issue they want to tackle.
“So if they are really concerned about mental health or exam pressure, they can choose that as a topic for their unit to focus on. But equally, if they are passionate about ensuring blind people are fully integrated into society they could choose that as a project.”
Scouts is clearly having a positive impact on its members. It’s hard to believe that Kentish a selective mute when she joined Scouts at the age of 10. Now at the age of 22 she’s become a mouthpiece of the organisation in her role as the UK’s first youth commissioner.
The scouts we spoke to had equally positive stories to share and were keen to praise The Scout Association.
“Scouting has really helped me grow as an individual as it’s helped me gain a lot of confidence and skills in areas that are going to help me a lot as I get older. Scouting has helped me overcome certain experiences in my life and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without scouting,” Payne said.
Law added: “Scouting means the world to me, I cannot picture what life would be like without the Scouts.
“They have offered me so many different experiences, such as travelling abroad to meet other scouts, camping in sub-zero temperatures and running around the countryside of England whilst being chased by leaders, that have shaped who I am and have allowed me to develop skills, form bonds that may never be broken and, ultimately, with my role within the Community Impact Group, to change my community, my country, and maybe even the world, for the good.”
Perhaps more than anything, The Scout Association is nurturing the men of the future by giving boys the opportunity to believe in themselves.
“It gives them the confidence and the opportunity to go forward in the future and know that they are good at something and know that they can be part of something which has a positive impact on the world around them,” Kentish says.
“Scouts is not just about camping, it’s about changing young people’s lives for the better.”
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