On the 9th October, I’m running the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon for young people’s charity YouthNet. It’s been a really difficult period of training – recently interrupted for weeks at a time by ill health – and I’m working really hard to do this.
In the grand scheme of things, I suppose not many people have heard of YouthNet, the charity that runs TheSite and Do-It, but they have an enormous, unseen impact. I started as a service user on TheSite ten years ago, so I feel like they’ve seen me through my awkward adolescence and out the other side.
I’m not going to claim to have had a terribly difficult life; I had a rough time with mental health difficulties as a teenager, which manifested in a number of different ways, but generally my family were supportive. I still needed somewhere more private and anonymous to talk and be listened to. A non-judgemental outlet is one of the most helpful things you can give to young people in these circumstances, and that is a huge part of the ethos of TheSite. The fact sheets present information without judgement, and the message board and live chat user communities provide a peer-support system that allows people to be anonymous and therefore more open than they would be among friends and family.
Back in 1996, when the charity was first forming, it was very difficult to find funding. The idea of a charity offering services entirely online seemed somewhat limited in the days of dial-up, and there were concerns about the sort of information children and young people might be able to access (predictably, early on the non-judgemental nature of the information TheSite.org provides has in the past riled the Daily Mail). Now, we can hardly imagine the world without the internet, and it seems obvious to me that young people who find it difficult to access support services turn to the internet for help. Indeed, TheSite.org appears in the top results on Google for issues such as unplanned pregnancy and self-harm. Online support isn’t the be-all and end-all for big issues but it can be very helpful in sign-posting people to local services, and persuading them to seek help.
I’m hoping to start training as a chat moderator in the next few weeks, to help facilitate the live chats. These days, a lot of people come to the community through the live chats and it’s inspiring to see how uplifting the community can be for people who are in real distress.
YouthNet makes a crucial difference, but as an online charity they go largely unnoticed by the wider community. As they celebrate their 16th birthday next month, they deserve wider recognition and I’m running all 13.1 miles of the Royal Parks Half Marathon for all the young people who need their support.