Bridges Project: Co-production with young people in Scotland

| Rachel Berry

For almost 40 years, Bridges Project has been supporting some of the most vulnerable young people in Midlothian and East Lothian in Scotland. For some, working with Bridges Project is the first time they’ve had a supportive adult in their lives. “A lot of our clients have said they feel like no one has shown faith in them, or believed what they have to say,” says Simen Holm, Fundraising and Communications Manager at the charity. “This is the first time they’ve had an adult who will listen to them, take them seriously and will see them as equal.”

Each year, Bridges Project helps around 500 12 to 25-year-olds transition from adolescence to adulthood. The charity offers an employability service focused on developing job skills and finding employment, a skills for life team teaching independent living skills, and – increasingly – mental health support to help address anxiety and social isolation. They use a referral model and work closely with councils, schools, GPs and CAMHS to find and support disadvantaged young people for whom the standard academic route to adulthood simply is not working. 

Bridges Project staff are experts at fitting the support to the client. Co-production is the red thread throughout the charity’s work. When a young person is referred to the charity, it’s a collaboration between the charity and the individual from the start to identify positive goals and outcomes. The charity uses 40 indicators of vulnerability – covering things like socioeconomic disadvantage, learning differences and mental health challenges – to assess where help is most needed. From there, the individual is matched with the most relevant service and meets with a support worker to agree a plan of action. Quarterly self evaluations give the young people a chance to measure their progress against wellbeing indicators and, with their support worker, to identify where they might need more or different support.

“It’s very tailored and flexible,” says Simen. “It’s also open ended. There’s no set amount for how often they need to engage with us or for how long they stay with us. Some young people can be with us for several years; others for a couple of months. It’s really important that clients are able to be with us for as long as they feel that it’s beneficial. We won’t leave them without them getting the support they need, which takes the pressure off. It lets them do things at their own pace.”

The goal is to help clients secure positive destinations, which could be further education, employment, work experience, vocational training or volunteering. And the charity will also refer on to other more targeted services for specialised employment or mental health support. 

As well as co-producing the service model for the individual, young people are also involved in informing the direction of the charity itself. A young ambassadors programme brings together current and past clients under the age of 25 to regularly meet with the charity’s CEO to give input on what Bridges Project could do differently, suggest new services, and to give input on the organisation’s next five-year strategic plan. They’ve also recently launched a peer-to-peer mentoring service, through which young people affected by substance abuse in their family can be supported by a peer with similar experiences. 

During the pandemic, the charity found that they were able to continue with a lot of their work uninterrupted. “We do a lot of one-to-one support, so most of that could happen remotely,” Simen explains. “That actually worked better because some of our clients felt more comfortable sitting in their own home talking to someone on the phone or through video call. Staff weren’t travelling either, so they were able to support more young people during that time.

“But where we did see the impact was in the lives of the young people we support. These young people were vulnerable in the first place, so the pandemic made those vulnerabilities even stronger. Some young people felt like they were going backwards in terms of their progress. They were just learning to become more social and outgoing and suddenly they were back to being socially isolated. We saw more young people needing help with mental health; some people we were supporting in, say, our employability service would also need some help with mental health, so our staff needed to expand their repertoire a bit to support these more prevalent needs.”

Bridges Project set up a new mental health support service last September, which already has the longest waiting list of all the charity’s services. All the charity’s support staff are now doing at least some mental health support, and anxiety and social isolation are the most common issues they’re encountering. Support can include building resilience by teaching stress management techniques and signposting to useful content and information available through apps and YouTube. Relationship building is also key: “We’ll try to get the young people to open up, build trust and give them a trusted adult to talk to,” explains Simen. “Sometimes just to go out for a coffee or a walk and have someone to talk things through with is so important and really helps them.

“What we do is really just about showing some faith in these young people and giving them what they need to be able to reach their potential. There’s a misconception that young people who don’t do well in, or are disengaged with, school are lazy – but what we see is that young people really just want to progress and do the best they can. If they’re given the right support and the right chance, they can really achieve great things.”

Find out more about Bridges Project at 

Photo by: Susan Kerr and the picture is of Susan, GIRFEC Support Worker, and Ryan, who is giving a thumbs up because he is enjoying the college course Susan helped him secure. The service Ryan was supported by is called the Inclusion Support Service.

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