Sunday 21 January 2018

Can the Scouts improve your mental health?

It's not all orienteering and tying knots. The Scouts teaches life lessons that can improve your overall well-being

Life lessons: Brothers Oliver (9) and Jack McGuire (13) are both members of the 9th Westmeath Milltownpass Scout Group Photo: Frank McGrath
Life lessons: Brothers Oliver (9) and Jack McGuire (13) are both members of the 9th Westmeath Milltownpass Scout Group Photo: Frank McGrath
Growing: Aoibhinn Moyne (19), a Rover Scout and Young Leader from Carndonagh, Co Donegal Photo: North West Newspix

Steve Cummins

Like many parents, Hazel McGuire often finds it difficult to get her teenage son out of his bedroom. The lure of the Xbox or the many other devices now competing for children's attention will be a familiar story in most households. Monday nights, however, are different. That's when Jack (13) meets with the Ninth Westmeath Scouts in Milltownpass.

"He absolutely loves it," says Hazel. "You couldn't stop him from going. He could leave the house here in a bad mood and go down there and have a great time and come back in a good mood. He's hugely interested in it and encouraged by it."

Jack is at a key stage in his development. From intense hormones to new schools, these early teenage years can be a stressful period. Jack also lives with Asperger syndrome, which means he can find social interaction challenging. It's partly why his love of his Scouts meetings is encouraging for his mother.

"It's great for getting him interacting with other kids and getting him outside and trying new stuff," she says. "The Scouts have definitely helped him in trying to forget about what might be overwhelming him. He just goes there and joins in with the others."

Growing: Aoibhinn Moyne (19), a Rover Scout and Young Leader from Carndonagh, Co Donegal Photo: North West Newspix
Growing: Aoibhinn Moyne (19), a Rover Scout and Young Leader from Carndonagh, Co Donegal Photo: North West Newspix

Beyond the adventures that Jack and his nine-year-old brother Oliver, who is in the Cub Scouts, are enjoying each week, they may also be soaking up a set of life skills far beyond learning how to build a camp.

A new study has found that being a Scout or Guide is associated with better mental health later in life. The results are based on a life-long study of almost 10,000 people who were born in the UK in 1959. Researchers in Scotland found that those who had been active members of the Scouts or Guides tended to have better mental health by the age of 50. They were found to be 15pc less likely to suffer with anxiety or mood disorders compared to those who had not been members.

Dr Keith Gaynor, a senior clinical psychologist at St John of God Hospital, Dublin, and author of 'Protecting Mental Health', is cautious of the findings.

"Following a large group of people since 1959 is an extraordinary commitment and hugely valuable. It has a lot of face value. However, it doesn't show us that joining the Scouts leads to good health, only that it is associated with it. We have to be careful about this. For instance, are the parents who supported their kids to attend the Scouts more attentive to the child's needs? You would also expect a factor like this to have a life-long impact."

Christy McCann is the Chief Scout of Scouting Ireland, the national representative body, and has been in the Scouts for more than 40 years. Having joined at 11, he is of an age not unlike those surveyed in the UK health study.

"Reflecting on it now I'm beginning to realise that maybe Scouting got me to where I am," says Mr McCann, who lives in Portrane, Co Dublin. "I run my own business. I reached the levels of Chief Scout. I've a happy and grown-up family and I'm living the dream, so maybe I should thank Scouting a little more for that."

Mr McCann lost his parents at a young age and left school early to take up work. "My world changed very fast and, looking back, I think that I wouldn't have been able to deal with the new stresses and responsibilities had the Scout Method not been in place in my life.

"In the Scouts, you learn that everything is achievable when you work as a group. So your mindset begins to change, not noticeably to yourself, but you do start approaching everything in life with a Scout attitude. In other words, you get creative and say to yourself, 'if I can't go that way then I start looking for an alternative way.'"

The Scout Method is the way in which Scouting Ireland delivers its eight-part programme. It contains elements such as 'learning by doing', 'the small group system' and 'personal progression'.

The overall aim is ultimately enjoyment and learning, but the by-product is that young people develop resilience and are given the skills needed to deal with difficulties that can arise in life.

Aoibhinn Moyne (19), a Rover Scout and Young Leader from Carndonagh, Co Donegal, attests to this.

"I have anxiety. I also had a hard time at school. I was bullied a bit. School just wasn't my place, but I always found that going to Scouts was a different experience for me. There was no anxiety, no pressure. This was at the age of seven or eight. I noticed that I wouldn't be anxious in the same way."

Aoibhinn says scouting gave her confidence and her achievements are numerable. She became a National Representative for Scouting Ireland aged 16. It meant delivering a speech in front of her peers, something she would never have contemplated years earlier.

"One of my biggest fears in school was when the teacher would ask you to go get something from another classroom. It absolutely terrified me. I used to get panic attacks and get really sweaty. I used to go really red in the face, but then in Scouts I went for this role. It helped me grow as a person and I was able to get up in a room full of people from all over the country and speak to them," says Aoibhinn.

Mike Walker, a 42-year-old from Stillorgan, Co Dublin, has been involved in the Scouts since he was seven years old. He is part of a team that arranges the Sionnach Adventures, weekend expeditions for Scouts, and quotes the Christy Moore line from 'Lisdoonvarna' - 'Everybody needs a break, climb a mountain or jump in a lake' - as his preferred method for dealing with stress.

"It certainly works for me. I do feel very privileged to have had the exposure to the outdoors at an early age through the Scouts. You learn something about yourself and about the outdoors when you stand at a base of a mountain and then set about climbing it.

"It gives you perspective and distance from your everyday life. It gives you a distance from all of those things that might consume you, whether it's stress, anxiety or Donald Trump being elected," says Mike.

Although cautious about the study, Dr Gaynor can see the obvious benefits of the Scout lifestyle - from lessons in altruism to challenging oneself. "These are skills we all need," he says. "But it has to be a good fit for the child. There is no single solution. Some children may hate the outdoors. Forcing them into something they hate won't bring the benefits we want. Finding activities that teach these skills, but fit our individual children is really important.

"Intuitively it sounds like attending something that's outdoors, that's team-based, that's social, that gives healthy challenges is probably a good thing," he adds.

"To say that Scouts is good above and beyond being part of your local GAA club, or chess club, or attending the choir, I suspect would struggle to stand up."

Irish Independent

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