Why was the Muslim Youth Helpline set up?
Mohammed Mamdani set up the Muslim Youth Helpline in 2001 to provide young British Muslims with advice and support that is sensitive to their culture and religion. Mohammed, who was 18 at the time, felt that there was very little support for the young Muslim community. He got together with a couple of friends at college and they ran the helpline from Mohammed’s bedroom for a few hours each week. The phoneline was based on a counselling model with young people counselling each other and providing emotional support, and signposting to other sources of help. It grew from there. Mohammed is a serial charity founder, and great at identifying gaps and what people need and rallying everyone together. That was 18 years ago. He was an inspirational founder. We stay true to the values which he instilled — 'confidential' and 'non judgemental' (we don’t judge people for what they have done or haven’t done).
How does the helpline operate?
We are open six hours a day, every single day. On every shift we have a helpline officer who is a paid member of staff and a trained counsellor. And then volunteers who we train in house; we do two training rounds every year. We train volunteers in listening and empathy skills, and have experts come in to talk about specific issues. We currently have 15 volunteers. People can contact us by phone, email or web chat. Web chat is where most people are more comfortable. They tell us they are sat with their families while talking to us on their phones. We did an exercise last year on how our clients might feel about contacting us. It's really interesting as even as an adult it’s hard to find a place where you can talk without being heard. Because we have the web chat facility young people can talk to us wherever they are.
What are some of the biggest issues young British Muslims contact you about?
Islamophobia is a big issue for young British Muslims. As we are a helpline we tend to see the more extreme end of things. We took a phone call from a 14-year-old girl, for instance, who had been beaten up at school pretty much every day for two months because she’s Muslim. She hadn’t told anyone about it. To walk around constantly thinking someone is going to hurt you, adds a level of background stress and anxiety that really affects young people’s lives. Growing up and figuring out who you are is hard enough without having people hate you just because of who you are. The most common issue that comes up through the helpline is mental health problems, with almost one in three (32 percent) young people contacting us about depression, anxiety and stress. Underlying that of course are secondary issues. They might have anxiety but that could be down to a number of reasons. You name it, we’ve heard it: sexual abuse, domestic violence. British Muslims face the same issues and challenges that British non Muslims do; the added faith and cultural aspect can sometimes be helpful and other times harmful. Recently, we’ve had a lot of safeguarding concerns come through the helpline and cases of sexual abuse which we’ve been speaking to the police about.
The charity raises awareness of the issues young British Muslims are contacting you about. Please tell us about this.
We have a responsibility to the community to raise awareness of the issues young British Muslims face. There’s so much taboo and stigma around them. To give you an example, pornography addiction has risen over the years. Last year there was a month when about half of our enquiries were about pornography addiction (50 percent were men and 50 percent were women). People don’t speak about this in the community, especially when it comes to women. It is important to go out into the community and talk about these issues to bring them to life. We run workshops, go to schools, mosques, community centres and youth clubs. Anywhere we can get to. We do as much training as we can to raise awareness and to help young people help each other. If you are a young person the first person you would look to for support is a friend, but then as a friend how do you deal with your mate who has an eating disorder? We run training in peer listening so young people are confident in supporting each other. Success for us is that a young person finds someone and somewhere for support, whether that's because their friend is talking to them or because they have been talking to us or another helpline we’ve referred them to. It's not just numbers of calls for us; it's about how much we're helping people who we don’t even see.
You’ve been the director of the charity since September 2018. What have you been working on in this time?
I actually started as a volunteer counsellor back in 2001 and was part of the first training batch of volunteers when Mohammed started the helpline. We were the guinea pig generation, the first trainees on the helpline. I started as a helpline worker and then went on to become a supervisor before joining the board of trustees. I stopped volunteering in 2008. I returned to the charity in 2018 as director. The organisation was struggling and it was at make or break point. I’ve spent a lot of my career going into organisations and getting things started again.
The biggest thing we’ve been doing is building a team. Wherever you work the people you work with make the biggest difference to your lives. They are the people you see the most. As part of this, we wanted to make sure that we’re providing a really good service. We closed the helpline temporarily — which was tough, as at that point it had been running consistently for 17 years, but we felt we had to stop and think about what kind of service we are building.
We wanted to make sure we are user friendly and client led, so we ran focus groups with young people and carried out surveys to find out what they need. One of the biggest changes to the helpline was the opening hours. The young people said they would like to call between 4pm and 6pm when their parents aren’t around. It seemed so obvious when they told us, but we had been opening at 6pm when their parents get home. We changed it and lo and behold every single day the phone rings at 4pm.
Also, when I joined as director there weren’t really any young volunteers so you couldn’t call it peer counselling or peer listening. The helpline needed to be youth led. We had to think where we could find people. Young people needed to see that they can come to the organisation, have an opinion, be heard and do things. We’ve been training young people and they are starting to take ownership. That I think has been the biggest change.
We also recognise we’re a tiny small fish and there are lots of organisations out there with similar aims. We’re doing a lot of cross promoting with other organisations such as the NSPCC and Beat (the eating disorder charity). The NSPCC is coming to give us safeguarding training and we’re going to be running a training session for them on culture and the issues we see among young Muslims. It’s really good to be able to reach out to people and say "why don’t we work together on this".