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“Painful memories turned into something beautiful”

Authors: Mateja Rozman Amon Published:

A filmmaking experience proves to be a source of peer support and liberation for vulnerable youth in Slovenia.


Youth is one of the most challenging periods in human life. Young people are involved with many issues and dilemmas that must be resolved.  There is a peculiar gap between the increasing freedom and autonomy of young people in deciding their course of life on one hand and the increasing uncertainties and risks involved in the planning of life on the other hand. This summarises the life situation of today’s young people. Young people enter stable social positions like continuous and sustainable employment and starting families later than previous generations (Du Bois-Reymond, Chisholm in Ule, 2011). Young people stay excluded from the sphere of these central social positions which means that they search for new positions in other life contexts – e.g. night life, entertainment. The consequence of all this is that the youth’s lifestyle tends to become more hedonistic.

Italian philosopher Galimberti (2012) discusses the phenomenon of depression among youth. He claims that modern depression among youth is different to the depression of previous centuries. He argues that contemporary depression is caused through the sense of incompetence and inadequacy because people are afraid that they will not be up to life’s challenges. The individualization of life (Beck, 2009) seems to be the major problem of contemporary young adults too. The question of “belonging” and the question of social inclusion seem to be the crucial questions of the time. It is also important to bear in mind that all youth are not in the same position. They start from different starting points and are not equally equipped for resolving the problems above, nor do they have the same social background or social networks to support them.

NEET youth and social vulnerability

The term NEET is used to describe young people (age 15-29) who are not engaged in any form of employment, education or training. It is a measure of disengagement from the labour market and perhaps from society in general. The proportion of NEET (age 15-24) according to Eurostat (Eurostat, 2011) in Slovenia is between 7-10 per cents (Eurostat, 2005). This is rather low and comparable to Germany, Sweden, Finland and Czech Republic. But this doesn’t mean that the problem is not significant or does not have other dimensions. The NEET phenomenon is multidimensional even when it is not very massive. Namely not all the NEETs have the same problems and dilemmas.

Five main subgroups of NEETs have been identified (Eurofound, 2012: 5) :

  • the conventionally unemployed, the largest subgroup, which can be further subdivided into long term and short-term unemployed;
  • the unavailable, which includes young carers, young people with family responsibilities and young people who are sick or disabled;
  • the disengaged: those young people who are not seeking jobs or education and are not constrained from doing so by other obligations or incapacities. This group includes discouraged workers as well as other young people who are pursuing dangerous and asocial lifestyles;
  • the opportunity-seekers: young people who are actively seeking work or training, but are holding out for opportunities that they see as befitting their skills and status;
  • the voluntary NEETs: those young people who are travelling and those constructively engaged in other activities such as art, music and self-directed learning.

All the categories include a mix of vulnerable and non-vulnerable young people. All the NEET categories share a set of common, transversal characteristics, of not accumulating human capital which places young people at the risk of future social exclusion. The use of a concept like NEET attracts attention to a variety of problems young people face and the multifaceted nature of disadvantage. The last is especially important for the policy makers creating strategies to help NEETs, such as counselling, education and employment.

Due to individualization of life, highly personalized approaches are needed. Many times these young people are not able to decide on the crucial life questions we discussed above. Many times the true reasons of their exclusion are hidden. They feel fearful and anxious. But some of them are even more vulnerable than others. The essential characteristic of social vulnerability (i.e. social exclusion) is escalation of different problems and the accumulation of unresolved issues arising from each other, e.g. poverty, family difficulties, low education, poor employment opportunities, immigration and physical, emotional or health problems. Those who do not have adequate emotional, social and economic support from their families seem to be most vulnerable of all.

PLYA programme

Among the most vulnerable groups there are also early school leavers and dropouts. The PLYA – Project Learning for Young Adults that was developed by the Slovenian Institute for Adult Education in the nineties is designed to help young adults of ages 15 to 26 belonging to the first four of five NEET groups above. The project, financed by European Social Fund through the Ministry of labour of Slovenia helps the youths to overcome the problems that occur when they find themselves in a social emptiness i.e. social vacuum. At the moment there are 12 active PLYA groups all over Slovenia.

In general the program has two main goals, i.e. to motivate a young person to continue or to complete an abandoned education or to get a job. PLYA is a highly personalised i.e. tailor-made programme where every student is invited personally to reflect upon her/his situation – the challenges, barriers, opportunities, her/his weak and strong points. Everybody outlines her/his personal learning plan. Participation in the PLYA is voluntary. The program requires daily participation. Students can attend the program up to one year.

The main learning mode are learning projects that might be completely personalised (i.e. individual learning projects; e.g. to make an exam, to do something that is important for the student) or collective i.e. group learning projects where a group shares the vision, goals and action plan, but the learning process itself is personalised (i.e. depending on student’s interests, learning needs, ambitions etc. within the project). Every learning project is realised in cooperation with the broader (local, national or international) environment, i.e. with experts and institution. A concrete example of a learning project is presented below.

The PLYA student’s profile

The average age is 19. Most of the participants are going through life crises. They are facing numerous problems and difficult circumstances at home, such as domestic violence, alcoholism, poverty, abandonment, death of parents or parents being not able to take care of them. The youths try to overcome their distress by abusing drugs, alcohol or switch on self-destructive or suicidal behaviour. Others escape in the virtual world of computer games and internet. There are also youngsters who have health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, psychosis and also physical injuries or illnesses after accidents. Yet some of them live an average family life, have caring parents, but they are just going through really bad puberty. They often find themselves in a conflict with authorities e.g. teachers, they violate school rules and start skipping classes. Part of the PLYA students experienced certain types of trauma.
The table below records data about occurrence of certain types of trauma and other stress events among PLYA participants. The research was done (Guzelj, 2012) among the participants (120 persons) that have been included in the programme in the year 2009/2010.

Table: Percentage of occurrence of certain types of trauma or major stress events among PLYA students -an extract from the display (Guzelj, 2012).

Table 1

The bold values at the table above present the occurrence of certain types of trauma or major stress events among PLYA students. The comparison with the national average – below them (Cvetek, 2009) shows that PLYA students are more often victims or witnesses of violence than average.

PLYA: arts and learning

Students who have experienced an emotional trauma e.g. a suicide attempt, physical violence, domestic abuse, anxiety, depression or other issues cannot benefit from conventional education properly because their main problem is not excelling at school, but mental distress. The basic idea of PLYA is to respect students’ starting position and their contemporary needs. Sometimes students themselves are not able to articulate the complexity of their position, nor express their needs. They need help to do this i.e. to break down a complex problem into several smaller and more manageable problems and to determine the order in which they will be resolved. Sometimes they need a mirror to be aware of their own position and to be encouraged to find the way out.

PLYA mentors use and develop a variety of tools to encourage participants to recognize their problems, to see different possibilities and to start to believe in themselves.
Here the use of art is of great help.  Arts represents an important part of PLYA learning projects, as will be described later in this text. There is a variety of artistic projects like musicals, editions of students’ poems, editions of students’ letters, drawing and painting exhibitions or video short films etc. All these help students to express themselves creatively. They get in touch with the creativity of their self. Through art they become aware of their own “transcendence”, their inner self. Art is a medium through which their problems become visible and understandable also to others in their surroundings. In this way they break down taboos and overcome emotional blocks and start a dialogue with people around them. In this way they are liberated of their inner tensions.

I choose to live – a case of good practice

The short documentary titled I choose to live (at the top of the page) was broadcast in late October at the full hall of Ljubljana’s cinema Šiška. It pierced the audience.

The documentary features a teenage girl of sixteen telling her life story.  After her mother’s death her mental distress leads her to a suicide attempt. Through the documentary she tells about her life and her experiences with mental hospital, the recovery process and how she managed to complete the school despite her problems. In the film, behind the girl’s storyline, psychiatrists, therapists, doctors, educators and sociologists explain the broader context of youth’s mental disorder as well as the ways out and thus through the documentary look at the problem from different perspectives.

The documentary has special value from the perspective of adult learning too. It has been produced in cooperation with the participants and mentors of PLYA programme on one side and the artists and the film crew of production group Vizualist on the other. The feature story of the girl is based upon the diary of a former PLYA participant, who speaks out. The identity of narrator stays hidden and is portrayed by professional actress Nina Rakovec.

The PLYA group in session.

Photo: Anka Simoncic

The documentary could be seen as an example of a mutual created learning space where listening to each other, empathy and art has played a central role. PLYA students had been participating in all phases of the film project i.e. they wrote the script, collected data about mental health in Slovenia, and filmed and edited the footage. They cooperated with the Director Nejc Levstik and the film crew Vizualist. It was an amazing experience for all of them. A variety of methods were used, e.g. individual work, field work, work in small groups, collecting data, research, cooperation with several institutions in the field of mental health in Slovenia, etc.

The Vizualist team learned a lot too. Nina Rakovec – the actress was guided not only by director but also by the student who tells the story. She has said that for her as an actress this was a very significant learning experience helping her to get deeply involved with the narrator and thus better understand and express her character.

The documentary serves as an awareness raiser for the general public as well as peer support for other youth in the same position. Suicide, self-injuring behaviour, eating disorders are still taboo themes in our society. The documentary intends to raise awareness about and explain mental illness among young people. It stresses empathy in interpersonal relationships and shows the ways of helping and the way out. The documentary will be screened publicly. The producers want schools to use it in their preventive work by discussing its content or do workshops upon the related topics that are dealt with in the documentary. The film is subtitled in English that makes it accessible to youth in other countries too.

….and ACTION! PLYA participants in film production.

Photo: Anka Simoncic


Finally, the film production was an important (and brave) learning experience for the student who tells her story through it. She says:

“The experience of creating this documentary was on one hand very painful for me. Feelings of pain, despair, fear and emptiness which had been already repressed and forgotten had been taking over me again. For a while I had been lost in the time – somewhere between my past and my present, trapped in a black hole full of negative thoughts. But this time I was not alone. The film cast and crew were all there for me. Therefore painful memories had been turning into something beautiful… As important as this film is to me – it is even more important for all the youth who are in similar distress and experiencing heavy times, because it brings such a great hope to them.”


Social arts like drama, dance, and painting and contemporary video production may serve youth as a helper when they want to express their emotions, feelings and mental distress that may lead many of them to self-injuring behaviour and to other mental disorders. Art can help bring emotions to the learning context. The emotions are part of the human personality. They impact almost all what we do. They are all the time with us, but rarely we reflect on, discuss, teach or learn (about) them intentionally in the context of organised learning  sessions (e.g. at school). Even when we do discuss them, we do it more academically in the way of definitions of emotions, type of emotions and similar.

But we know that emotional reactions are learned unconsciously through the relationships with important others. Emotions are usually first indicators of mental disorders too. We can feel our own emotions but we cannot always predict our emotional reactions. Emotions may block successful learning.  Behind drop-outs often lie very important emotional reasons too. Emotional behaviour is subjective – e.g. emotional reactions in different people can be completely different at the objectively similar situation.  Why we react in this but not in other way? A theory may explain the reason, but cannot change our behaviour. The students who have experienced emotional trauma or whose behaviour is seen as inappropriate for society need to understand what is going on on one hand, but on the other hand they need to learn new, more acceptable patterns of behaviour.  They can observe other people and put themselves in their shoes and try to feel their feelings or emotions. In this way they can always learn about themselves too.

Art in education could help in this. By art we don’t mean only traditional art classes that ask students e.g. to paint or to draw from their imagination, to discuss novels or to listen to music. It is more to invite them to express their inner world of images, feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Arts (e.g. painting, drama, music) may serve as a channel to the inner self to overcome the subjectivity which is inherent to it. Art can serve as a mirror in which we could recognize ourselves. The arts reflect interpersonal relationships and give us opportunity to learn them or learn about them. The focus is on inner, very subjective experience that we may share with others. In this way art can help to bridge people and thus strengthens a sense of belonging too.

This article is produced in cooperation with the InfoNet adult education correspondents’ network.


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Mateja Rozman Amon Mateja Rozman Amon is Director of Adult Education Centre Radovljica, one of the organisations behind PLYA (Project learning for young adults programme) in Slovenia. She worked as a mentor in PLYA programme for ten years. Her work is mainly devoted to adult education in the local environment, especially to the groups of vulnerable adults, young adults who dropped out of regular school, adults in literacy programmes and learning in the third life period. She has been a manager of many EU projects mainly focused on including adult learners from disadvantaged groups. Contact: Show all articles by Mateja Rozman Amon
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