AEncouraging youth with ASD & mental health disorders to share their COVID-19 experiences through digital storytelling

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the mental health of people. According to Eurofound’s “Living, working and COVID-19 (Update April 2021)” report, mental well-being has reached its lowest level across all age groups since the onset of the pandemic over a year ago. This is especially prominent among young people and those who have lost their job. Social restrictions, a sense of uncertainty for the future and the spread of terrifying news have affected youth, increasing their levels of anxiety, stress and depression.

At the same time, existing inequalities are widening because of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups. In particular, youth living with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other mental health disorders experienced a greater increase of anxiety because of an abrupt change in their daily routine, the difficulty of access to therapy and special education services. In most cases, parents have become their only caregivers.

Aiming to help youth with ASD and mental health disorders cope with the pandemic and promote their social inclusion, the Social Policy Institute (SPIN), a Greek organization focusing on innovative educational programmes, participates in the European initiative “StoryLiving – Enabling youth with developmental disabilities & mental health disorders to share their COVID-19 experiences through digital storytelling”.

SPIN: An institute providing innovative educational resources

The Social Policy Institute is an organization focusing on vocational training, continuous education and lifelong learning, as well as educational consultancy and support in social policy and social economy related subjects, such as migration (education and inclusion), social responsibility, employability, human rights protection, sustainability, cyberbullying and bullying prevention and treatment etc. SPIN offers specified, focus- and expert-oriented, certified and accredited, online self-initiated vocational training courses, support services to existing providers, mentoring services, and other jointly with our partners identified related activities.

“SPIN is an organization focusing in adult education in social policy, social innovation and sustainability. Our actions are divided into two pillars: education and training, and research and innovation,” says Eirianna Dragona, – Project Manager of SPIN. We cooperate with public, non-profit and private bodies in implementing national, European and international programs that focus on issues such as developing employability, reintegrating excluded social groups into the labor market, integrating vulnerable social groups, developing skills (upskilling and reskilling), etc. Using this experience and in cooperation with a global network of universities and academic institutions, we develop and offer education and training programs for adults focusing on social policy and sustainability issues.”

The organization has established collaborative relations with academic institutions such as the Neapolis University Pafos and the Centre of International & European Political Economy & Governance – University of the Peloponnese, to develop and support undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in social sciences and humanities. According to Eirianna, SPIN’s involvement in youth-focused programs was driven by the presumption that there is a huge need to give space to young people to express themselves, as well as to participate in education and training programs that will equip them with the knowledge and skills to meet the demands of the labor market. “What we have seen is that by giving a voice to young people to share their experience and express their needs, we lay the foundations for a sustainable future,” Eirianna says, adding that SPIN envisions “a world in which personal development, social change and sustainability can be achieved through education, research and innovation”.

The StoryLiving initiative

StoryLiving is a European programme promoting digital storytelling as a methodology and as a communication and healing tool for youth living with ASD and other mental health disorders. It aims to help these youth cope with the pandemic, support youth trainers, educators and social workers and increase their capacity to use storytelling in their work, promote social inclusion of youth with ASD/mental health disorders through storytelling, and raise awareness about the special issues that these people face during the pandemic.

Eirianna explains that the idea for this project began to grow in September 2020, after the first lockdown in Greece and shortly before the second one. It was when the first studies on the effects of lockdowns and social distancing on people with mental illnesses and autism came to light. “We had already worked on other initiatives based on the methodology of storytelling and the results were very promising,” Eirianna says. The action is co-founded by the European Commission through Erasmus+ – KA2: Strategic Partnership for Youth Education.

The project aims at overcoming the challenges that youth with developmental disabilities and mental health disorders faced during the pandemic through the use of digital storytelling. StoryLiving supports storytelling as a method for overcoming and process emotions, fears, traumas and isolation and for supporting the healing process of youth and their families. The ultimate goal of the project, which is the mental wellbeing of youth with developmental disabilities and mental health disorders, contributes to the achievement of the 11 European youth goals (2019-2027), in particular of goal #5 Mental Health and Wellbeing.

Eirianna says that the initiative was driven by the need to provide young people from underrepresented groups the tools and methods to be able to share their experience, with the ultimate goal to overcome the traumas left by social distancing and the insecurity of the pandemic. “The project brings young people with autism or mental disorders to the forefront. It gives them the chance to play a leading part in the activities, and a space to discuss and express their feelings and opinions around the pandemic.”

As part of the project, young people with autism or mental illnesses will be invited this year to create their own stories and explain how they experienced the pandemic. An online learning and hosting platform will be developed using a Learning Management System (LMS) that will include the training modules and the collected stories, and will allow users to upload their own digital stories. “These stories will be freely accessible and we aim for more and more young people to join our online platform and upload their own experiences,” says Eirianna. In the end, all organizations participating in the project will draft a recommendations paper at a national and European level to promote the use of storytelling as a healing and communication process.

In order to achieve the project goals, a group of 7 organizations each with different expertise – in education, new technologies, storytelling etc. – has been created. The consortium includes organizations from Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom and North Macedonia. Furthermore, SPIN created a network of professionals in Greece and engaged them in the process through interviews, information events and trainings, while the organization builds communication bridges with parents and families and adapts its actions to their real daily needs.

So far, the consortium has managed to reach around 100 professionals working with young people with ASD or mental disorders and has conducted national reports on how the pandemic affected these young people in Greece, Italy, Germany, UK, Spain and North Macedonia.

The key to successful youth initiatives

Youth programs such as StoryLiving offer huge benefits to the target groups and to society as a whole. But what makes a youth initiative successful? Eirianna argues that the most important thing is that the initiative responds to the needs of each target group in order to foster participation. “There should be a link between what the target group needs and what we plan.”

She also underlines the importance of involving young people in every step of the process. And she gives one simple advice to all organizations wishing to implement this kind of programs: “Involve young people in your actions from the very beginning of the concept, not just during the implementation. Only in this way will the action be truly successful and sustainable,” Eirianna says.

For more information about the StoryLiving initiative you can visit: