To mark the release of Cut Short in paperback, Ciaran Thapar joins fellow youth worker and activist Ben Lindsay to talk government cuts, mental health, and the power of grassroots organising
Jhemar was playing Gran Turismo Sport on his PlayStation after coming home from school when he found out his 17-year-old half-brother, Michael, had been stabbed to death by six men in south London’s Betts Park.
Jhemar, along with his mother, godmother, and younger brother, drove to the park together. He was in disbelief. He was meant to be seeing Michael on Sunday – now, he would never see him again.
This is just one of many stories in Ciaran Thapar’s book, Cut Short: Why we’re failing our youth – and how to fix it. Thapar draws on research, interviews with experts, and his own experience as a youth worker in Cut Short, while centring the young people whose lives are at stake in the UK’s youth violence crisis. But it’s not only a poignant portrait of a society increasingly ripped apart by racism and classism – it’s also a rallying cry for change.
Here, Thapar talks to Ben Lindsay, who is a fellow youth worker and author, as well as the founder of Power The Fight – a London-based charity that does amazing work tackling violence affecting young people. Together they discuss how school exclusions fail young people with behavioural issues, the impact of social media on youth work, and the importance of looking after your mental health when you’re an activist.
Ciaran Thapar: So, I got into youth work because I signed up to be a mentor when I was doing my Masters, and I got matched with a boy in Brixton called Jhemar. He was 12. I’d done bits of mentoring and volunteering before, but that was a moment at which I was seeking purpose in my career. After meeting him and consistently offering him support for about six months, I decided that was something I was good at and that fulfilled me. So I started applying to different jobs, working in schools and then started doing more volunteering. Cut Short, my book, all goes back to that moment of meeting Jhemar.
Ben Lindsay: That’s really interesting because I got into it through mentoring as well. When I came out of uni, I managed to get a job in the city. Then I got bored of that. So I trained to become a mentor, and my first job was at a school in south-east London.
Through working in the school system, I’ve seen the negative impact that school exclusions have on young people. As a mentor, my main role was to engage with young people with behavioural issues, which meant that I was in this position to try and stop them from being excluded. This was between 2004 and 2006 when there was a real government push for mentors, then that money got kind of stripped away and we were hit with the austerity measures around 2010 and 2011. That impacts many things, but if we just focus on the school system, we’re talking about young people who can be excluded, then end up in the pupil referral unit, and then possibly end up in criminality. That is a dangerous thing.
“We’re talking about young people who can be excluded, then end up in the pupil referral unit, and then possibly end up in criminality. That is a dangerous thing” – Ben Lindsay
Ciaran Thapar: I second everything that’s just been said. But to add another angle on it, which complements it I think, is the role that youth services can play in picking up the slack that exclusions cause. So often you’ll see that by 2pm the local youth club – if it still exists – has got the kids that have left school at lunch, and they’ve ended up at the youth club because it’s the only place they feel safe or they don’t want to go home. You get a sense of a youth club not only being a service that might provide skills or a meal, but also a genuinely life-saving space. The fact that that's being stripped away from so many different parts of London is catastrophic.
When you have that demographic of young person, who is more likely to get kicked out of school without any therapeutic support, and then they’re less likely to be able to access support when they actually go back to their community because the youth club may or may not be open… it’s a complete lack of support.
Ben Lindsay: I totally agree. I think with youth clubs – and anywhere where young people hang out – if the resources are correct there, it can make a massive difference. Part of the problem is that so much of that has been decimated through austerity, but I definitely believe there needs to be more money and energy put into grassroots organisations.
Maybe this is a bit of a controversial statement, but I’m not sure we actually need more youth clubs, though. What I mean by that is I think the way young people migrate has probably changed a little bit over the years. Once upon a time, I think young people might have felt safer and it might have been easier going from one part of a borough to another. We’re now trying to get young people to go from one ward to another ward, which can be really complicated. That’s not to say youth clubs should be made redundant, but I think we just need to take into account that young people’s mental health is so bad at the moment that the idea of going from one part of the borough to another is actually really hard for them.
Ciaran Thapar: Yeah, I think that that also reflects the digital nature of our world, right? You’re not always going to be able to get people to be in the physical space together for lots of different reasons. I think social media and the digital world in general provide a lot of capacity for madness, but it also provides capacity for quite innovative ways of staying in contact with people and checking in on people. I’m always interested in that – both because of how catastrophic it potentially could be, as well as some of the innovative ways you can use it.
Ben Lindsay: We saw that during lockdown, when we had to change how we engaged with young people therapeutically, either in group work and one-to-one. We had to do those sessions on Teams or Zoom, which had its limitations, but meant that we could still engage with young people. So yeah, there’s the positive there.
I think the speed with which young people can gather due to various social media platforms is frightening, though. A while ago a young person unfortunately lost his life in south-east London, and I was 200 miles away in Norwich at a camp with 8,000 kids, with maybe 1,000 from London. Unfortunately, this young person’s death was caught on Snapchat, and then you’ve suddenly got a safeguarding issue 200 miles away from the actual incident.
Ciaran Thapar: Yeah, exactly. You referenced that in your TED talk, right?
Ben Lindsay: Yes, I did. You know, what people don’t tell you when you go into youth work, is that there’s a possibility to lose. You go in there very hopeful. But the reality is that there are young people who, unfortunately, you lose.
We are woefully ill-equipped to handle the emotional stress which young people deal with day to day. It just wasn’t what I was dealing with when I was a kid – there were other stressors, sure, but I don’t think it was as consistent as what we’re seeing with young people today.
“I’m now getting to the stage where it’s happening every month, where you just hear someone else has been a victim of something. No one prepares you for those things to happen” – Ciaran Thapar
Ciaran Thapar: It’s interesting to think about because I’m still newer in this game. You’ve been doing it for two decades, while I’m in my seventh year of youth work. I’m now getting to the stage where I’ve been in it long enough to know young people that I knew when they were 13 or 14 that are now doing amazing things. Like Jhemar, Demetri, Carl – people in the book that have triumphant stories. But also unfortunately, there are other young people that sat in the same workshops as those characters, but they’re now in prison or they’re dead. I’m now getting to the stage where it’s happening every month, where you just hear someone else has been a victim of something. No one prepares you for those things to happen.
Ben Lindsay: I think it’s a really good point. We often externalise stuff. We think about the community. But one of the things our research has looked into is the impact of this stuff on practitioners. How is our wellbeing? Do we have clinical supervision? We have 14 members of staff at the charity, and every member of staff gets clinical supervision. That is expensive, but this stuff is real. We just went to a funeral two weeks ago of a 16-year-old who unfortunately lost their life in southeast London. That impacted my team massively. How do you look after your emotional mental health? Do you have fair appeal or clinical supervision in your context?
Ciaran Thapar: I keep getting signs from the world that I need to get clinical supervision. I have had it in different capacities, and I am investing in aspects of therapy, but I feel like I haven’t committed enough. I feel like I’ve got support from lots of people, but yeah, I still feel like I’ve got a long way to go on that journey. With the book coming out in hardback last year and in paperback now, I’ve gone through a year of healing, basically. Not only did writing the book completely exhaust me on an intellectual level, but it made me really grapple with things that have happened over the last five or six years that I hadn’t necessarily processed properly. It helped me reflect, but it did exhaust me. So I’m going through a real process now of slowing down, taking stock and investing time into taking clinical supervision more seriously.
Cut Short: Why we’re failing our youth – and how to fix it by Ciaran Thapar is published by Penguin, and is out in paperback today.