Tucked away down a non-descript lane in the middle of Kirkwall, the Orkney Youth Café really doesn’t look like much from the outside – in fact, it doesn’t really look like anything at all.

As always, however, it’s what’s on the inside that really counts, and as I step through the front door I find myself entering a space that is bright and welcoming, and which houses the couches, TVs, games consoles and obligatory pool table that you would expect to find somewhere like this.  

It is also consciously, overtly and unapologetically inclusive: one of the first things you see upon entering is a poster for Orkney’s only LGBTQ+ group, which meets here weekly; a rainbow flag from the Edinburgh City Youth Café (presumably donated rather than secured as the spoils of battle) hangs with defiant prominence; and an entire wall has been dedicated to a bold and colourful celebration of what Pride means to the young people here. 

There isn’t a youth club going on when I arrive, but my visit has coincided with the Monday afternoon Youth Achievement Group. Today, there are just a few teenagers and a couple of staff working away in the sort of relaxed, open environment that only youth workers seem to know how to create. 

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The young people themselves are happy to talk to me, but I quickly get the sense that acquiescing to such requests is a bit of a reflex response, as if they’re used to having adults ask them lots of questions but no longer expect them to really care about the answers. 

Right now they’re gathering evidence for their Dynamic Youth Award, which requires them to choose a particular challenge, plan out their approach to completing it, spend at least five hours working on the project, gather the evidence required to demonstrate their progress, and then reflect on their own development over time. This could then, for example, provide the springboard for completion of  Youth Achievement Awards that go all the way up to a platinum level that is equivalent to Advanced Higher. 

The idea behind all of this is much the same as anywhere else in Scotland: these and other awards, completed with the support and encouragement of utterly invaluable (and desperately under-appreciated) youth workers, help to provide opportunities for progression to those who, for whatever reason, have not followed the traditional or ‘normal’ route through school. 

But unsurprisingly, these people aren’t all that interested in a conversation about the nuts and bolts of Scotland’s youth award pathways, so we go down a different path. Lots of people in Orkney and Edinburgh are likely to read this, I tell them, including the sorts of people who make decisions affecting their lives – so what are the issues that they think should be a priority? 

The Herald:

An obvious starting point is transport. All young people in Scotland now enjoy free bus travel, with Transport Scotland announcing back in March that more than 50 million journeys had already been made under the scheme. This is great news for many but the young people I’m speaking to point out (with a weary tone that suggests they’ve had this conversation over and over and over again) that Orkney’s bus services are extremely limited in the evenings and at night time, which can leave young people in the most rural parts of mainland feeling isolated. And of course there is the small matter of this much vaunted free travel scheme failing to cover ferries, which appears to have sent a pretty clear message about the priorities of those in government. 

The provision of mental health services is also, they believe, a serious – and perhaps worsening – problem, and they give the example of people having to wait “months or even years” for appointments with CAMHS. This is, sadly, true across much of Scotland, but seeing this same issue emerge in Orkney is a reminder that, no matter where you go, crucial services for vulnerable people never seem to be prioritised. 

Another aspect of this problem, this time more specific to the location, is also raised: the size of the community, and the way in which meetings are organised, means that you are almost certainly going to see people you know on the way into and out of your appointment. This, one tells me with typical teenaged understatement, is “not exactly ideal.” 

But they reserved their strongest criticism for the council’s handling of several recent deaths by suicide among young Orcadians, which they dismiss as panicked and reactive. They tell me that, in the aftermath, lots of people were suddenly very eager to be seen to be offering support to young people, but that they didn’t really seem to actually care about them.

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For them it felt like an exercise in box-ticking and back-patting, not a serious attempt to help anyone. Young people always see through those sorts of performances, and the ones in Orkney are, clearly, no different. 

“It was like, oh good, you’re here now,” one teen tells me, her voice thick with sarcasm. “Where were you before?” 

The implication, even accusation, is clear and stark: that not enough is done to support those struggling when they need it, with truly terrible consequences.  

Amazingly, minutes later, they receive an email from their school advising that an upcoming guidance class will be covering the issue of suicide, and that if they are uncomfortable or struggling then they can talk to their teachers. If they wish they will also be able to withdraw from the session. 

They read it together, unite in exasperated laughter, and then get on with their activity.