Award-winning story highlights need for more support for teens

A woman from south London has scooped top prize in a national creative writing competition aimed at highlighting the need for better support for vulnerable older children.

Rebekah McDermott, 25,from near Brixton, was joint winner in the 16-25 category of The Children’s Society’s competition, which is part of the national charity’s Seriously Awkward campaign.

The campaign aims to secure more support for vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds with everything from housing and access to education and employment, to the risk of child sexual exploitation.

Entrants were tasked with crafting a fictional story of up to 2,000 words based upon the ups and downs faced by teenagers of this age. Judges included award-winning novelist Emma Healey, who was inspired to get involved by her own experiences of teenage depression and another leading author, Harriet Reuter-Hapgood, whose debut novel The Square Root of Summer tells the story of a grieving girl trying to cope with love and loss.

Rebekah’s success with her story Mud means she will now receive expert advice and feedback on her writing from AM Heath Literary Agents.

It tells how a girl, Judith, and her parents, respond to the arrival of a Polish family in town. Despite coming from a seemingly supportive family Judith faces emotional difficulties caused by the kind of pressures faced by many older children.

Rebekah, who works for Bloomsbury Publishing and writes under the name Rebekah Fellows, said “I’m thrilled to have won. I enjoyed writing it and found the theme inspiring as a writing prompt, so I’m very pleased that others enjoyed reading it.

Luckily, I grew up with a supportive network of family and friends. But I did want to depict that sense of isolation that I think everyone at some point feels in their school life, in that period between being a teenager and becoming an adult.”

Rebekah, who graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with an MA in Creative Writing Fiction two years ago, added: “The main character in my story, Judith, comes from what looks like a supportive home, but things aren’t quite as they seem.

If the story were to continue then the friendship between Judith and Rafal would evolve into something quite important. I wanted to suggest that sometimes it’s in the most unusual places that you can find help or friendship, and when you’re least expecting it.”

Emma Healey, who judged the over-26 category, and whose latest novel Whistle in the Dark tells the story of a teenager, Lana, who went missing, said: “All the competition stories I read touched on how frightening the world can be for young people, and how difficult it can be to admit that, or find someone helpful to talk to.

This definitely corresponds to my own experience of adolescence, and more needs to be done to provide young people with the support they need.”

The Children’s Society wants to see more help for vulnerable older children – including those designated by councils as being ‘in need’ – and would like to see support continue when young people turn 18 where it is still needed.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, which ran the competition in partnership with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, said: “We had a fantastic response to our competition, and the theme struck a chord with many aspiring writers who understand how difficult life can be for 16 and 17-year-olds, some inspired by moving personal experiences.

This age can be a tricky time for any young person as they approach milestones like leaving school, or seeking work. When these coincide with significant issues like mental health problems, domestic abuse or the risk of homelessness, things can be really overwhelming.

Yet too often these vulnerable children are wrongly dismissed as troublesome teenagers who are old enough to deal with their own problems.

That’s why our Seriously Awkward campaign is calling for better support for these young people to help them address these issues before they escalate and give them a better chance of a happy future.”

The winning stories can be read at www.childrenssociety.org.uk/writing


Emma Healey’s story

Emma Healey, photographed at the UEA campus, Norwich.

Emma Healey said the Seriously Awkward campaign struck a chord due to her own experiences of depression, which inspired Whistle in the Dark, the follow-up to her award-winning debut novel Elizabeth is Missing. Her new book tells the story of a teenager, Lana, who went missing, through the eyes of her mother.

I keep meeting people who have faced these issues themselves or have children who are still struggling with this nightmare – it’s more widespread than people think,” said Emma, who suffered a breakdown not long before she turned 16.

Like Lana I’d been self-harming and thinking about suicide and on one occasion I took loads of pills which my mum made me throw up.

There are lots of things going on for teenagers, with exam stress, changing friendship groups, becoming independent and all those hormone changes affecting you.”

The Children’s Society says vulnerable older children – including those who are designated by councils as being ‘in need’ – are too often dismissed as troublesome teenagers or old enough to cope.

But Emma said that young people needed support – including to talk about their feelings.

It can be a pretty terrifying time and I felt pressure from every direction, but you don’t really have the language to express any of that when you’re a teenager, even if you have supportive parents like I did,” she said.

When I eventually saw a social worker and nurse it was suggested that I went into a mental health unit but there were no children’s beds so I was sent to an adult ward.

Fortunately one psychiatrist got me talking by asking me about paintings, one of my passions. We were eventually able to pin-point the stresses in my life and come up with an alternative plan which involved dropping GCSEs and going into therapy.

In the year that followed I found it hard to leave the house. I started taking anti-depressants but it wasn’t until I’d nearly finished my degree that I started feeling a lot better.”

Seriously Awkward also calls for support for vulnerable young people to continue after their 18thbirthday – a change Emma wholeheartedly supports.

It’s completely ridiculous to think that anyone’s problems can suddenly be solved because of one birthday but young people are slipping through the net between services which support children and those which help adults,” she said.

It’s great to have a campaign to raise awareness of the need for young people to get more support to deal with the kind of challenges they can face.”

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