For young people who have physical disabilities or long-term health conditions, those difficult teenage years can be an isolated landscape.
Josh Hepple knows this only too well. He has cerebral palsy and struggled to fit in at mainstream school.
But that didn’t hold him back – in 2014, he graduated from Stirling University with a degree in law.
To celebrate, Josh (27) and his family – mum Seonaid Cooke, dad Paul Hepple and sister Sarah (25) – decided to do something to help other young people.
They set up TalkTime Edinburgh, a charity offering a unique, free counselling service for young people, aged 12 to 25, who have physical disabilities or long-term health conditions.
Seonaid, who is now the charity’s director, said: “Josh struggled to fit in at mainstream secondary school and said it would have been helpful when he was a teenager to have someone to talk to about how he was feeling, outside of the family.
“Sadly, nothing like that was available.
“Josh’s graduation was a very special event for our family as we never thought he’d go to university due to the severity of his disability.
“So when he graduated, we sat down as a family to discuss what we could do to celebrate.
“That’s when TalkTime was first discussed.”
After a year of research, to ensure no other charity was operating in the same field, TalkTime Edinburgh launched in 2015.
Its popularity quickly proved the need for such a service and the charity has since changed its name to TalkTime Scotland as it is now open to young people across the country.
Seonaid explained: “We are the first, and we believe only, charity in Scotland to offer this service.
“When we first started, we limited ourselves to Edinburgh and the Lothians.
“However, it quickly became apparent that there was demand from other parts of the country too.
“So we’re now offering free counselling to young people all over Scotland.
“While they can’t all come in to our base in Norton Park Conference Centre in Leith, they can access our service via Skype or telephone.
“We’re now keen to reach out to young people in the remotest parts of the country who may find it difficult to access other services.”
TalkTime Scotland has enlisted the help of self-employed, independent counsellors, all of whom have years of experience working with young people.
Their sessions are funded via grant bodies which support TalkTime and a host of groups which have also kindly donated funds.
Seonaid also has her own unique way of funding the charity’s work.
She said: “I’m a member of the Leith Collective, a group of artists, designers and crafts people who have their own shop in Ocean Terminal in Leith.
“I make jewellery and knitwear and everything I make from the shop is donated to the charity.
“There’s also a donation section on our website www.talktimescotland.co.uk.”
TalkTime works with young people with a wide range of disabilities, from non-verbal clients to those with invisible illnesses, such as diabetes.
As well as self-referrals, the charity is also contacted by parents, teachers, specialist nurses and GPs.
And its services are scored by the young people themselves.
“We have a specially created tool that measures outcomes,” said Seonaid.
“When young people come to us initially, we ask them on a scale of one to five how bad things are for them.
“At the end of their counselling, we then ask them the same question.
“We have had a lot of very good outcomes.”
Perhaps one recent client summed it up best though.
She said: “I couldn’t rate my counsellor highly enough. She was absolutely brilliant and I feel really grateful to have met her and benefited from her help and guidance.
“I actually cried at my last session because I had to say goodbye and she had come to be such a special person in my life.”
Everyone who reaches out to TalkTime can be assured of confidentiality and being treated as an individual.
Seonaid said: “Each client has their own issues.
“However, feeling isolated and a lack of confidence in social situations are often cited by our clients.
“We’ve not had as much bullying as you might have thought. In my experience with Josh, it’s worse.
“Young people are not bullied, they’re just ignored and that can often be even more distressing.
“Josh actually said to me one day, ‘I’m not going back to school’. He had been struggling at school but had kept quite a lot from me.
“So he did his advanced highers at Telford College and loved it. That turned things around for him.
“There was a lot of help for students with extra support needs and he made a lot friends, as well as getting involved in student politics.
“He was much happier and did better academically, which resulted in him then going on to Stirling University – I was completely floored when he told me!”
Josh not only secured his law degree but became the leader of the uni’s Amnesty International group.
He also became a reviewer for the Edinburgh Fringe and now helps train front of house staff on how best to help disabled customers.
Josh did his Masters at City University in London and is now working on his PhD in international human rights law at Middlesex University in London.
Seonaid said: “He has worked with a number of theatres in London, training staff on equality law, as well as Transport for London which now has a map showing which stations are wheelchair accessible.”
Seeing Josh thrive has inspired Seonaid, who wants to help more young people reach their potential.
It has become TalkTime Scotland’s main aim.
She added: “When young people hit their teens, they start to realise their disability is going to be with them forever.
“They go through stages of extreme anger and frustration as that sudden awareness comes out in all sorts of ways.
“That’s when TalkTime Scotland can really help make a big difference.
“We had one young girl, a wheelchair user, who was in danger of being excluded from school.
“After seven months of counselling, she did well in her exams and is now looking forward to going to college and reaching her own goals.”
To find out more, visit www.talktimescotland.co.uk or call 07774 210104.
Help TalkTime expand its reach across Scotland
TalkTime Scotland was founded in 2015 with the aim of helping physically disabled young people to reach their potential and improve their mental well-being and that of their families.
The charity supports disabled people aged between 12 and 25 through weekly one-to-one counselling sessions with qualified professionals.
This can be face-to-face, by video link or telephone.
The service is currently available to anyone living in Scotland, free of charge.
The face-to-face counselling service is based in Norton Park Conference Centre in Leith.
However, clients across Scotland are now accessing the Skype and telephone service.
As well as grant funds, the charity is supported by a number of groups and organisations, including Hymans Robertson, Radio Forth’s Cash for Kids, Santander Foundation, Foundation Scotland, Edinburgh and Lothian Trust Fund, Tunnocks and Forth Valley Chorus.
TalkTime Scotland’s services are limited to the amount of external funding it can source. So it is keen to explore new sponsorship and fundraising activities and is keen for people to get on board.
Seonaid added: “We’d be delighted to hear from anyone who would like to fundraise for us, whether it be through having a fancy dress day at their school, running a bake sale or even doing a sponsored sky dive.”
If you would like to help the charity, please email [email protected] or call or text 07774 210104.