EMPATHY, CREATIVITY & YOUTH MENTAL HEALTH

A GENERATIONAL STRUGGLE

Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organization. Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability and it contributes to 800,000 suicides per year, the majority of which occur in developing countries. Yet we are also seeing that mental health is a very real generational struggle. Mental health disorders are on the rise among children, and over 2 million youth in the US experience major depressive episodes with severe impairment.  

In 2009, only 9% of 16-25-year-olds disagreed with the statement that “life is really worth living”, but that has now risen to 18%.” YouGov, UK, 2019

“According to the latest Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey, 29% of 15-year-old girls and 13% of 15-year-old boys in European countries reported “feeling low” more than once a week… Suicide is the leading cause of death among adolescents (10–19 years old) in low- and middle-income countries and the second leading cause in high-income countries in the European Region.” WHO 

This is not new news, yet, problems persist. According to WHO “individuals with mental ill-health are often shunned and denied access to care, with services for promoting and protecting mental health and preventing ill-health often starved of resources.” Unfortunately, this often means that getting help is not always seen as the ‘norm’ among younger people, and many underplay the problems that they have:

I remember the first time I had a panic attack I had no idea what it was, the only thing I was certain of was that I could not tell a soul what just happened. The feeling of overwhelm and sadness was the tip of the iceberg, what was worse was the shame I felt and the fear that someone would find out how much of an ungrateful spoilt brat I was that I couldn't appreciate my 'perfect' life.Taz, 27.

YOUTH ANXIETY DRIVEN BY SOCIAL MEDIA  

“Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness.” Melissa G. Hunt

Social media is a key driver of creating a mass sense of 'low-lying' anxiety among younger generations - especially with Gen Z.  More than half (57%)  of 16-25-year-olds surveyed by YouGov in the UK think social media creates “overwhelming pressure” to succeed. While there are many reasons (and often a big life change) that are driving the more serious issues of depression, there is a residual sense of anxiety among younger generations which driven largely by social media dynamics that involve a never-ending sense of comparison and a gap between the reality of people's lives and their projected curated lives. As a result of this, there are increased educational efforts being put into resilience programmes at schools that help young people recognise the reality of digital behaviours and give them the mechanisms and techniques to help themselves find solutions to counteract negative feelings. 

There are many other triggers our modern world throws at young people that adversely affect their mental health - including political and economic instability, climate crisis and biodiversity loss, pressure to succeed and marginalization. Is worth remembering too, that many people are struggling with very real chemical imbalances in their brain. We say this because young people still feel there are stigmas around mental health. And while we’ve all heard the saying that a mental health crisis needs to be treated as you would a broken leg - the tragic reality is that by many, it is still not. 

BLURRED HEALTH MANAGEMENT LINES & TREATING A CRISIS

There are blurred lines between mental health and physical health (when we ask young people about their health, the subject of mental health always comes up). There are also very specific things that young people are consciously doing in order to manage their mental health. The upside today is that there are always new and different ways that people manage them - from creative workshops and spaces to meditation and exercises that have positive consequences on physical health like getting outdoors into nature, hiking, yoga, keeping active/fit… 

But there are those who need professional intervention to overcome severe difficulties. Professional mental health services like Pieta House in Ireland see a spike in people coming to them for help at this time of the year (summer months often see the numbers accessing Pieta House facilities decline). Innovative initiatives inspired by how young people are choosing to seek help today, like Crisis Text Line, are saving lives - their trained empathy responders have more than 5,000 with texters in the UK, US and Canada every day. Due to the severity of the problem in places where professional resources are scarce or inaccessible, there are also some groundbreaking mental health programmes manifesting - for example this ‘friendship bench’ project pioneered by trained grandmothers in Zimbabwe.

Now, there is far more conversation around mental health among younger people, which is really positive. Young people in general are more open to conversation about the topic than older people, notwithstanding the fact that it can still be hard to ask for help. There is a generational leaning towards open conversation among young people. Stephen, a founder of BiPolar Bear Wear - a young creative community that aims to encourage dialogue around mental health through clothing, talks and blog posts - got medical intervention in psychiatric wards  when he was at his lowest point (a ‘zero’ out of 10), and credits those hospital therapists for saving his life. Despite his openness and sensitivities around mental health, he often talks about how shocked he was when he discovered some of his close friends (even some helping him with BiPolar Bear Wear) were suffering and he didn’t know about it. All of us have biases, which means that constantly driving home the importance of open, real conversation and education around getting help when it’s needed is extremely important. 

“World Mental Health Day is a platform for everyone to get involved in something that decides their and their loved one's entire lives health and wealth. A lot of people who are suffering or supporting with mental illness live ‘World Mental Health Day’ every day - and not by choice; but IMO this day lends an opportunity for EVERYBODY to show they care for other people. Especially for those who might not get an opportunity to display their care day-in-day-out. Human beings are lovely, and I believe the day is a good showcase of our unity and community.” Stephen, BiPolar Bear Wear. 

EMPATHY & NORMALISING THROUGH CREATIVITY

23 year old English writer and activist Scarlett Curtis recently published a collection of essays called “It’s Not Ok to feel Blue (And Other Lies)”, hoping to help normalise and drive conversation around feelings that we don’t always talk about.

Depression tells you that you are alone and that you will always be alone. It convinces you that your mind is a prison and makes you believe that to bring anyone into your life is to lock them inside with you so it's probably just easier to push everyone away.” Scarlett, 23

On her decision to create the book, Curtis said I think more than anything I made this book for myself. Not for me now, but for 19-year-old me. The me that decided that she didn’t want to be alive anymore. The me that felt so alone. The me that felt so ashamed.” As part of the launch campaign, Curtis also  arranged for books to be placed on the London Underground with stickers that read ‘it’s ok to feel anxious on the tube.’  The royalties for the book go to a 24/7 crisis helpline. 

This book is just one example of the ways in which young people are making major strides in breaking stigmas surrounding mental health in recent times, is through people who proudly share their own stories and experiences. This makes the individual experience that is so rarely shared, feel collective. 

Channelling creativity is one of the most prominent recurring things that comes up in conversations about mental health - as a coping mechanism and means of therapy but also as a powerful tool to open dialogues. 

BRAND TAKEOUTS: MARKETING, MARKETERS & MENTAL HEALTH

Because of the progress that has been made over the years in the de-stigmatization and awareness around mental health, it is an area that many brands and organisations are getting involved in. It’s wise, still, to be aware of ‘woke-washing’ in this space. It’s a matter of life and death: 

“I think we are progressing so far with Mental Health awareness, and it's seemingly proving to be effective as a preventative measure for many. Long may that continue. But I think mental illness is being avoided by companies because it may not seem to be as romantic or appealing to them. However, I think people or consumers can easily demarcate between a transparent company on a mission and those capitalising on a profitable movement. A mental illness ain't just for Christmas.” Stephen, BiPolar Bear Wear. 

It’s also worth noting that many people reading this work in an industry that has a young workforce and massive pressures associated with it. It is appropriate this week to reflect on how we might unconsciously be affecting the mental wellbeing of those around us on a daily basis. One young advertising professional recently wrote about her experience crying on the way to work in London:

Over my three years in advertising I’ve worked in multiple agencies and found friends in creative departments at every stage of their careers… In reality I was constantly surrounded by people struggling to address their mental health problems for fear of repercussions or appearing weak.” Beth

No doubt, a lot of us can relate to these feelings and observations. If you think someone needs to talk, research the right way to approach the conversation. Look after one another.