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What sparked your decision to take a leadership role in the field of young people’s mental health by setting up Championing Youth Minds?

When I was very young, I began to struggle with my mental health. Around the age of 12, I started experiencing physical symptoms, too – and, six years later, was diagnosed with both fibromyalgia and the connective-tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. During the first Covid lockdown, I reflected on those uncertain years, when I didn’t have a diagnosis. I’d learned that my physical health conditions are linked to depression and anxiety, and I had the support of friends, family and medical professionals to help me face that struggle.

But what about young people who don’t?

There’s a gap in our education system. As we go through school, we’re bombarded with information – but we’re never taught how to understand or process our own emotions and thoughts. I realised that self-reflection and self-awareness are skills that we must carry through our whole lives. But if young people aren’t taught enough about mental health, how can they develop those skills?

That’s why I decided, early last year, to take a leadership role and set up Championing Youth Minds. We launched as an Instagram feed – the idea being that it would share infographics and other pieces of linked info, so that young people scrolling on their phones would have some positive mental health content to explore – as opposed to a lot of the negative, harmful and mentally unhealthy stuff you typically see on social networks.

I wanted to gather into one place bits of useful content that users could then follow back to the relevant sources. And by being open about my own mental health challenges, I hoped to inspire and empower other people like myself to use their experiences in a positive way.

In the process of setting up the feed and evolving it into a website, how have you demonstrated leadership skills?

Networking was probably the most important skill, which I used and got better at as I went along. I already had a LinkedIn account at the beginning, so I just started doing loads of cold messaging with people in the mental health space who looked like they could provide some useful help and advice.

Before long, my days were packed with intro calls with those new contacts to see if there was a meaningful connection we could build on. I’d always ask them how I could get better at networking! One really helpful organisation at that stage was The OLLIE Foundation.

After a while, I decided that I wanted to build a team of volunteers – whether for helping out on Instagram, or supporting our growth into a website. So, I put out an Instagram post to say I was looking for people who could build websites or do copywriting, and the people who stepped forward all have first-hand knowledge of the sorts of issues we’re exploring. That was my first, direct experience of being a leader, and I’d never even had a full-time job!

I went on this journey of figuring out my teammates’ work-styles, my own leadership style, how many times we’d have meetings (we whittled it down), how we’d communicate (we’re big on WhatsApp, because no one sees emails on time) and how to make decisions.

I also realised that, if I wanted to be a leader, I’d have to trust my teammates and delegate more. I felt the need to micromanage everything in order to get my vision across – but I’ve come to realise that sometimes, you just need to let go. It’s also quite nice to be vulnerable with your team: to put your hands up and say, “I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to play this – anyone got any ideas?”

We’re now recruiting for heads of functions, and I’m working with a brilliant strategy lead – she’s just graduated from university, but worked with another non-profit for two years.

How does well-managed mental health prepare young people to become effective future leaders?

If we go back to the skills and qualities that I said young people should learn in education – such as self-awareness, self-reflection and knowing how to deal with stress – they all help us manage our wellbeing. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean you’re living without a diagnosed mental health condition, but that you’ve simply developed a capacity to cope on a daily basis.

Some may struggle to see how anyone could have well-managed mental wellbeing at the same time as living with diagnosed depression. That’s a category I fit into – even though, thankfully, my own condition is in remission. But what it’s all about is having the right strategies in place, and knowing which sorts of signs you should recognise within yourself that should tell you to speak to someone or seek help.

All of those things are essential in leadership. If you’re not self-aware, you can’t work well as part of a team. In my own work, when I wasn’t quite sure of the direction we were going in with Championing Youth Minds, and that was affecting my communication skills, if I hadn’t spotted that behavioural pattern I wouldn’t have recognised it was time to sit down and ask myself where all the pressure was coming from. Doing that was vital for moving forward.

Self-awareness and self-reflection have enabled me to be far more transparent with my team, and that’s really boosted our ability to work together. There’s a big culture link, too: I can’t expect my team members to be open and transparent with me if I’m coming across as closed off.

How do you hope to develop as a leader as your own career takes shape?

My main goal is to be the glue that sticks everyone together. Someone who can take a step back, look at the way we’re doing things and see whether there are any potential snags that are preventing us from being as good as we could be.

I want to be able to free up more mental space, so that if a team member comes to me to flag up something that isn’t going well on the organisational side of things, or to raise a personal issue, I will have the capacity to deal with that.

I’d also like to gather more insights into different ways of leading. I’m always going to be working with different people and facing new challenges, so being able to adapt my style regularly will be very important. There are so many more skills for me to uncover and learn.

After education, I’m planning to go into HR work, then equality, diversity and inclusion further down the line,

Voices from our Community: Tanya Marwaha is a disability and mental health advocate, and founder of Championing Youth Minds.