Many of us, as children, turned the pages of a comic book to escape to a world of fantasy.
But a new comic series, Uberheroes, is trying to encourage young people to face reality and not hide their identities behind a mask.
The run of comics tackles mental health issues that children and young people are facing, and its storylines are provided from the personal accounts of youngsters from Northern Ireland who have dealt with mental ill health.
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So far, four issues of Uberheroes have been published – both online and in hard copy.
They are then taken into primary and secondary schools across the country to educate pupils about critical issues such as self-harm, drug addiction, body image and depression.
Despite the colourful characters and crazy costumes, what grounds the Uberheroes is the fact that all of the storylines are real.
“We could obviously come up with stories that we’ve made up ourselves, however, we didn’t want to do that because we know there are lots of children in Northern Ireland who’ve actually suffered from the issues we have identified that need covered,” said Dee Nixon, chief executive of Hope 4 Life NI, the mental health charity behind the comics.
“All of our comic stories are created from real accounts of young people who live here.”
From personal parables to the page
The charity sources the storylines from young people with whom it has been involved.
“We have met them through associations with other groups that we work in tandem with. We’ll then go in with some sticky buns, some coffee and have a chat to them.
“We’ll then create from that recording, a timeline and a narrative which is then sent to the young person for them to approve or amend,” said Ms Nixon.
Once it has been approved, it is sent to Danny McLaughlin, founder of Revolve Comics, who creates a script based on their experiences.
“We hammer into shapes some points from Hope 4 Life’s clinical position and I bring in a more narrative storytelling position, which can come at odds sometimes,” he said.
“Sometimes it needs to be more engaging for the children, but sometimes you need it to be more accurate, so there is a bit of give and take there.
“They want to get their point across and the bottom line is that it all boils down to what the kid needs from the story, so although storytelling is part of the engagement it still comes secondary to the actual goal,” says Danny.
Sharing experiences is ‘cathartic’
The young person is involved in the entire creation process so that it truly reflects their struggle.
Ms Nixon says the feedback from those children involved has been positive.
“All of them have said how cathartic an experience it has been for them,” she said. “They’ve said it has helped them to know that they have a voice and vehicle to speak out.
“When we start the workshops in the schools and tell the kids that these are real stories, it always has a positive and immediate impact on every single pupil in the classroom.
“It’s been really beneficial for them to know that they have been helping out other young people.”
‘You don’t know what’s going to happen’
Hope 4 Life has visited a group of primary seven pupils at Oakgrove Integrated Primary School in Derry on several occasions.
One session covered drug addiction, manipulation and isolation.
In the first part of the workshop, the children read aloud to the class and then discussed the issues raised in the comic book and how they can be addressed.
Their teacher, Zara Feeney, said the workshops have been well received.
“With the age they’re at – especially as they’re about to transition into secondary school – it’s absolutely amazing that there’s a programme that does deal with these situations,” she said.
“I know that the children get a lot out of it – so it’s really great to see.
“The comic books have been amazing and even in their spare time you can see [the children] taking them out from underneath their desks.”
The charity has engaged with more than 7,000 young people aged 9-16 this academic year, and the feedback from the pupils has been great too.
“I learned how you’re not meant to take drugs and it’s useful for the future in case people do offer you things you don’t want to take – it’s alright to say no,” said Shea-Leigh Craig, one of the Oakgrove pupils involved.
“The comics were good because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future and you need to learn in case something bad does happen.”
For many of us, the stigma around mental health meant it was not widely discussed. So it may come as a surprise that pupils are now talking openly about issues such as self-harm and depression.
Campbell Hamilton, the relationship and development officer who ran the workshop, believes societal changes are responsible.
“What the stats are telling us is that young people are facing terrible things because of technology.
“Whenever we were in school, it didn’t seem to be affecting people as young as primary seven, but now it is.
“What we need to do is help youngsters to break the stigma before they even know that there is a stigma surrounding poor mental health.”
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