Desmond Masters has a role working alongside Youth Moves, which is paid for by The National Lottery Community Fund for a project called Get Connected Partnership. 

He is employed by Off The Record, the mental health and wellbeing charity, and supports our young people’s mental health, in both a group, detached and 121 setting.

He started working with us when covid lockdown hit, so wasn't able to access young people in the usual way. But he managed to use innovative online methods to interact and make some impact. We caught up with him for a chat.

What’s different about your role?

Lots of young people get intimidated leaving their areas, so being in the offices at Off the Record in Old Market, isn’t always the most accessible place, especially for young people in South Bristol.

So me being embedded in a community like Knowle West and other parts of south Bristol with Youth Moves, makes it easier for young people to feel comfortable to access these services.

What was it like when you started and lockdown came?

It was a bit weird for me because yes it had already started when I came in. So I was trying to work out, how do I engage with young people over zoom. This was new to a lot of us. You know, how do I engage them, without physically bringing them in. Historically I would do one-to-one support sessions or in a group, so was used to working in that particular way.

It took a while, but I think it eventually did work, and helped me when I started to do bits and bobs when lockdown eased a bit. I could start to see how I'm going to get certain people there, how I'm going to get into the schools, and places like that. I was able to sow a few seeds with the digital stuff that I could then pick up a bit further down the line, so I wasn't a total stranger when they could see my face.

Hope do you think this impacted on young people?

Lockdown massively made everybody anxious. You know, everybody suddenly became a bit edgy, you know, don't go out, watch the spread, wash all your clothes, don't touch each other and and all that. So many young people became naturally very anxious.

Some young people were more difficult to engage with. They weren't able to leave their houses, so we lost contact altogether. Others we engaged with when it lifted found it very hard when coming back out and being in social situations, like school. Social anxiety became quite a big thing, and from some young people that had never displaying any symptoms like this before covid. As time has gone on things are settling and normalising for most people though.

In general is there a stigma attached to mental health for young people?

It can be such a taboo, if you come from 'the road.' Ah Mental health, ah no, it means crazy. Puts people off. So, we are trying to get out into the community to show people it’s not a taboo thing, its normal. One in three people will experience it at some point in their lives, so it’s quite natural really.

Laura, Des (centre), and Jim showing the new Lottery funded partnership between Youth Moves and Off the Record focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of young people in South Bristol 

Are there particular mental health issues young people experience differently than adults?

Yes, you need to be age appropriate in the intervention. For young people before the age of 12 for example, mum and dad are like their superheroes, you can work through the parents. But after that they start looking towards their peers, so you can be more direct. And of course, the brain is in fact still maturing up to around the age of 25, so there can be lots of changes along that timeline.


How do you approach mental health issues with young people?

First of all you need to build rapport, so it’s really useful me being involved in a youth work setting like with Youth Moves, where you have the time to do that.

I think it also helps that I am not the traditional type of person that people would envision a mental health worker to look like. I got a baseball cap, a bit of swagger and all that! This can break that bubble of anxiety a bit, make them think am not going to judge them so hard. Someone that feels familiar.

What is your professional background?

Initially I it was all about sport, I retrained to become a PE teacher, so as an adult went to university. I was known for my breakdancing and body popping, and then blew up my knee so couldn’t do that anymore.

I eventually started working for a youth charity called Fairbridge, where I did a lot of sport stuff too. I then moved across into the Princes Trust and stayed them for around 14 years. 

And it was there I saw the rise in a lot of young people with anxiety and depression as a personal development tutor, and it made me want to delve deeper. To really get into the side of youth mental health. So, I retrained and did some specific courses, and here we are today.

I wanted to know why this person is like this , why are they running out of the building, what made them throw that chair, all that stuff. To really understand.


A younger Desmond in action on the dancefloor. He was part of a breakdancing group, and one of the best in Bristol, until an injury forced him to quit.

How did your learning help you to understand more?

Well now I do understand more. Its not just a case of standing alongside someone, its more than that, it’s understanding the underlying causes. It’s understanding what anxiety is, the different types of anxieties, as they aren’t all the same. And applying the right intervention for which.

Anxiety itself is a natural thing, like trying to get through a gap in a car. But some young people have it all the time. And it becomes a problem when it stays in their body and they don’t how to release it. It’s a natural reaction to fear really, or feeling frightened. Fight, flight or freeze. And we try to identify what is happening. What’s the thing behind the behaviour. Thoughts affect behaviour, and behaviour affects thoughts. 

I work with low intensity, anxiety and depression, I don’t work with psychosis or schizophrenia or anything like that. Young people that are just starting to experience the mental health. People who don’t feel themselves or know what’s going on, and where maybe a teacher has noticed a change, so can be very subtle.


What do you do to help young people?

Sometimes young people need a bigger tool box, to give them more choices. So I essentially deliver CBT (Cognitive behaviour Therapy). Ask them questions, make them aware of what is going on in their body, how they are feeling, catch the thought, and make them curious.

We sometimes do a psychological questionnaire which uses algorithms, a form to fill out with 47 questions which helps me to analyse what is going on. This helps me get the right intervention.  

Are young people and their behaviour often misunderstood?

Yes, I think so. Lots of people think they are angry, young people kicking off, when often they are actually anxious, scared, defensive and often for good reasons. Living 'on road', young people are tribal and will be afraid about rivals, something happening to them, which is often a reality. They may also have family pressures, live in an environment where they don’t feel safe.

Understanding the cause behind the behaviour is the key to the CBT therapy that Desmond uses with young people

So how we ask questions and approach young people can trigger them. Telling them they have mental health issues, can rile, and make them kick off. So the communication is key, and then understanding what’s behind the behaviour. Some teachers just see anger, when more is going on. And it’s my job to find out what that is.


So prevention is better than cure in you're work?

Definitely. There is a huge amount of money spent on mental health per year. Of that money not enough is used on children's mental health, and early intervention. Which for me is crazy as this will all transfer into adult life if not picked up.

Things like generalised anxiety, can turn into more serious mental health issues, and more serious social problems, if not identified at an early stage.

The Government talking about wanting more police to solve crime, but what about more social workers, community workers, youth workers. It’s all law and order stuff, without really looking at the causes and halting it in its path.