Real Leaders

Taking Mental Health To The Streets

The search for Europe’s best social business minds by Ashoka and Ben & Jerrry’s has started delivering results. The 434 applicants from nine countries have revealed the first shining stars among them. Charlie Alcock is Founder and CEO of MAC-UK . She’s a trained clinical psychologist and takes mental health to street level by delivering interventions to young offenders. She finds them on benches, buses and stairwells: anywhere where they feel comfortable.

She’s also just scooped the winning prize in the Ashoka and Ben & Jerry’s Join Our Core competition. We caught up with her and asked her a few questions around her big win and her project.  

How do you feel?!

I’m still struggling to believe it! We entered because we thought it would be good experience, but never thought that we would win! It’s credit to our young people and staff team. They are the ones who do the hard work and who give me energy to do things like this. Everything we do is a full team effort. It’s an amazing feeling when it all comes together. I’m still buzzing about it!

What made you become a social entrepreneur?

I’ve always been interested in why we are the way we are and how our similarities and differences come about. When I was 15, I started volunteering regularly at a homeless shelter, where I had the privilege of seeing a whole new world. I remember one guy who always used to wear headphones.

One day I asked him what he listened to and he told me that he didn’t listen to anything. He just wore his headphones to keep people away. These sorts of experiences taught me that you can’t take things at face value. We need to understand things from an individual’s perspective. It’s too easy to draw our own conclusions and in most cases they are probably wrong. There is no one size fits all.

The competition picked you out for your innovative approach – Can you dive a little deeper?

The MAC-UK approach is all about putting mental health at the heart of the solution for youth offenders. This approach is different because mental health usually comes downstream, as an intervention, rather than being the first port of call. We only need to look at our own lives to realize that how we feel each day effects what we do. If we oversleep and miss our train to work, then the rest of the day usually feels a bit all over the place.

Well, for me anyway. Young people are no different. We need to start with our mental wellbeing – if we can get that right then the rest will follow. MAC-UK is also different because we take mental health to the streets. We deliver what young people need, where they need it and when they want it.

This can be on a bus, bench, stairwell or a court of law waiting room. This is a completely different way of delivering services but it’s what young people have asked for – they won’t go to clinics due to the stigma and in some cases they are not safe to go: the clinic is in the wrong gang postcode.

What are you doing differently to others working in this same space?

Our projects are authentically person-led by young people. This is essential for their sense of ownership, which in turn is essential for their willingness to attend. We don’t take any referrals, young people refer each other. We also wrap the mental health stuff around activities which they design and really want.

They usually want a job or to create a CV, it might also be music or football. These are the upfront activities and the mental health issues are wrapped around them. Sometimes being youth-led means that things happen really slowly and it can be incredibly frustrating at times. But, it ultimately works. We also work at a systems level.

We believe it’s about getting the young person ready for the system AND getting the system ready for the young person. Young people might, for example, co-deliver mental health training to police officers. They would be paid to do this too, giving them actual employment experience. Getting young offenders and police together in a room is pretty radical in itself – the training is almost the bonus.

Can you give us a story about the great social impact MAC-UK has?

There are many and it’s hard to know which one to choose! There is one young man who I find particularly inspiring. We met him in the early days of founding the charity. He covered his eyes with a hood most of the time and barely spoke to me. He was smoking a lot of cannabis, was depressed and was really embroiled in an offending lifestyle. By working with us doing street therapy, he slowly began to change.

Four years on, he’s an ambassador in his community and has won awards for encouraging his peers to change. He is trained in basic mental health awareness which he then takes to others. He’s also a phenomenal musician. He was a co-founder of our Mini MAC social enterprise which takes music and mental health promotion into schools and prisons.

Then there’s the guy we spoke to through his letterbox for six months. He was too scared to leave his flat. He worked with us and went on to complete a work experience placement. Again, absolutely inspirational.

What are the key challenges you’ll be taking to Ashoka?

There are so many challenges that the first task will be to decide which one to address first!  The one on our minds a lot is how to scale. We want street-based mental health to become the status quo. It has the potential to reach all excluded young people in every community across the world. The challenge is working out the best way to do this and how to also keep young people at the heart of it.

I know Ashoka have worked with hundreds of others with similar dilemmas. We are so lucky to have their support. It’s going to make a world of difference. I’m a clinician after all… I’ve never even read a book on business.

What excites you the most about winning the Join Our Core Comeptition?

Our work is pretty tough and unglamorous day-to-day and we have to get excited about the little things, like a young person responding to a text message for the first time. It’s so validating to be recognized by such a strong and socially aware brand. It gives us the assurance that we need to move forward on our journey.

It reassures us that others share our vision and that it’s possible. My dream would be to create a new ice cream flavor which is made and designed by disadvantaged young people from start to finish. How cool would that be. Young people need jobs. We would love to work with Ben & Jerry’s on a project like this.

What’s your favorite Ben and Jerry’s Flavour?!

Cookie Dough. I absolutely love it!

Why are your ideas and work so important to you?

I have a pretty strong determination and when I see that something isn’t right I can’t rest until I solve it. Young offenders, gangs and the absence of mental health care really got to me. I used to sit in a clinic waiting to see young people and nobody came.

It made no sense. I had to find a better way to deliver services in the best possible way. That’s what we’re now doing and we’re making headway. It’s thanks to young people, it really is. They are the ones who hold the solutions. We just need to listen.

For more information about Charlie and MAC-UK, head to  


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