Hello. My name is Matt Pollard and I’m a digital designer here at RocketMill and I’m here to talk to you today about mental health in the digital world. But before I do, I want to tell you a few things about myself that you may or may not know. First of all, I love baking, video games, and wrestling. Although not necessarily all at the same time. And on the opposite side of that coin, I’m terrified of wasps, clowns, and public speaking, which makes this whole thing a little bit of a challenge.
What is mental health in the digital world?
This fear forms a part of social anxiety, which I’ve had pretty much for as long as I can remember and it tenuously leads me on to my topic today. So, what is mental health in the digital world? I hear you all possibly collectively think and there’s this widely accepted idea that digital, especially social media apps and games are detrimental to mental health, but I want to show you how these digital platforms are making waves to really increase mental health awareness and give mental health sufferers outlets and giving them the tools that they need to manage their conditions.
What isn’t mental health?
But before I get into that, we need to ask the question; what is mental health? Or more crucially, we need to identify what mental health isn’t because there are many misunderstandings, misconceptions, and mistruths about mental health. The first one I’d like to dispel is, mental health does not necessarily mean mental illness. Do mental illnesses affect your mental health? Yes, of course they do, but everyone has mental health. Not everyone has a mental illness. Just like not all of us have a physical illness. Mental health, like our physical health, is something that we all have to maintain, to nurture it, and to really try and make better when it takes a turn for the worst.
So, what else aren’t mental illnesses? They’re not feeling a bit sad. They’re not something you can just get over, they’re definitely not rare, which is something I’ll go into detail in a little bit, and they’re most definitely not a sign of weakness. Often people with mental illnesses can be viewed as a burden on society or they see themselves as being weak from suffering from mental illness. When really it takes enormous strength to be able to get through every single day with a mental illness. We need to shatter this idea that mental illnesses are rare and when they really cover a huge range of conditions that most people wouldn’t even consider. And while mental health awareness is getting better, there’s a huge number of conditions that people are scared to talk about or maybe they don’t even consider to be problems at all.
Mental health in statistics
I’ve got some statistics surrounding mental health which will shed a light on the extent of the problem and how common it really is. One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. That’s one-quarter of the population or approximately 16 and a quarter million people.
5.9 in 100 people experience a generalised anxiety disorder in 2016. 3.3 in 100 people experienced depression. 7.8 in 100 people experienced them both. 20.6 in 100 people had suicidal thoughts. That’s 20% of people thinking about taking their own lives. 6.7 in 100 people attempted suicide.
To put that into perspective, if this were a global statistic applied to the world’s population, then that would be around 460 million people would’ve committed suicide in 2016. That’s almost the entire population of the United States, Canada, and Mexico combined. When looking at the statistics, it appears that women are more likely to be affected by mental illness. From a 2014 survey, 20% of women reported having a mental illness, whereas 12.5% of men reported to having a mental illness.
But men are more likely to commit suicide. Of 6,000 suicides in 2017, men accounted for three-quarters of them. There’s even a display just down the road from RocketMill which supports this statistic and it states that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK. But why? What gives men cause to feel that they need to take their own life more than women do?
Mental health stigma
Recently there were tweets from Johnny Chiodini, a video game journalist over at eurogamer.net and he’s a very active mental health advocate. He’s done a series called Low Batteries which looks into mental health and gaming. He’s also done a TED Talk called Can a Video Game Save a life? And he’s one of the influences that led me to do this forefront here today. He wrote, “There’s a man crying on this train and his friends are doing nothing but telling him to chill out, compose himself, stop it, be quiet, they’re being so dismissive and it’s properly shit. Off the train now, but that was toxic masculinity in action. His friends could focus on nothing but the fact that he wasn’t meant to be crying, especially in public. From what I gathered, he’s just got out of a five-year relationship. I’d be balling too. Imagine being just told to bottle it by friends by that point. Wankers.”
Wankers are putting it mildly, but it plays into this warped idea that men aren’t supposed to show emotion, that they’re supposed to bottle up everything inside and be real men and eat steak for every single meal and watch trucks get driven over by bigger trucks. When really there’s absolutely nothing wrong with baking and owning three different types of rolling pin.
He then goes on to say, “PSA, crying is mint. Your body has a hardwired way of making you feel better and you get to make all sorts of fun new noises. Give it a go.” Which is great advice, I’ve made more than a few snot bubbles in my time, but what is key here besides the point that he’s making is that he’s using Twitter, a social media platform, to highlight the social stigma and highlight awareness about mental health.
Also, his TED Talk and Low Batteries series can be found on another well-known digital platform; YouTube. It’s digital that’s enabling us to bring this awareness to the form more than ever.
Another example comes from my cousin, Katie, who suffers from both anxiety and depression. She’s spoken about how social media and the web has benefited her. She says, “Twitter has been wonderful for finding folk like myself and making friends online. I feel accepted there and it’s easier to talk about mental health than it is in person or real life.” She also runs a blog, another digital platform, which allows her to get her thoughts out. Rather than bottling them up inside, which is not only cathartic for her, but may well provide comfort for someone else who’s going through the same thing.
Social media is not a necessary evil
It’s often said in this digital age that social media is so ingrained on our society that it is now a necessary evil, but with the potential to change how social media is used and perceived, I would prefer to say that social media isn’t necessarily evil. Often talking face to face about mental health problems is one of the hardest things that people can do. So having a resource like social media where people can just open up without the need of having to seek someone out in person has already been a game changer. It has the huge potential to do good and is already doing good if you just take time to look beyond the negative.
Apps and mental health
There’s also apps where there’s been a bit of attention shift recently. Plenty of people are aware of apps like Angry Birds and Pokémon GO, but there’s a wealth of apps out there that aid mental health sufferers and provoke awareness. This is just a small cross-section of apps that are out there to aid a wide range of mental illnesses, ranging from anxiety and depression to the scarier, less talked about ones like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia or even ones that most people wouldn’t even consider to be problems like OCD, addiction, and the eating disorders. While I can’t show you all of these, let me touch upon some of the more interesting ones I’ve discovered.
This first one which isn’t even an app, it’s actually a chatbot called WoeBot and it is integrated into Facebook Messenger and it acts as online digital CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It gives daily lessons with the aim of helping reframe negative thoughts. It can track your mood or as you can see from the example here, it just gives you simply a quick outlet for anything that may be on your mind or even give you emergency contacts should things be really serious.
Next is an app called Headspace which focuses on mental health maintenance. The idea is it gives you short meditative exercises that help you focus your breathing, clear your mind, manages the stresses of every day life, and simply manage your own head space.
While WoeBot and Headspace focus on managing your mental health to not let it get to a point where you’re in dire need of help, Stay Alive is an app that’s designed for people who are at real risk of taking their own lives and reaching breaking point. It has a range of resources, tools, and contacts to assist you in getting help when you really, really need it.
Lastly is Flowy which is an app which actually gamify mental health maintenance. It’s designed for people who experience panic attacks and allows them to manage them by helping them control their own breathing and collecting the coins that you see on screen and they breathe in time with the wind. It actually provides a distraction for their mind and the feeling of overwhelming fear that they’re feeling. It’s a unique take on mental health management where the game is actually used to escape from the panic that they’re feeling.
The power of video games
That brings me neatly onto my next point. Don’t underestimate the power of video games. Despite being one of the biggest industries in the world today, video games still suffer, much like mental health, from a stigma. A stigma that all games are like this guy and that video games are the root of all evil, that teach your kids how to kill in Call of Duty or even worse, teaching them how to floss. But the truth is that video games have come a long way over the years and are more than just a form of entertainment. They have flossing, notwithstanding become an art form in their own right and have given means of escapism to many, many people who are struggling with their mental health.
I, myself, on many occasion have video games to thank for lifting my mood out of a dark depression and just when things seem at their very, very worst. But it’s just not the means of escapism that give video games an important role to play in aiding mental health. As many games are now actually tackling mental health issues directly, which is helping raise awareness and gives gamers who may be suffering with their mental health a way to realise they’re not alone in their struggles.
Here are just a few examples. First of all, Life is Strange is a story-driven game which tackles issues of depression and teen suicide. Night in the Woods tells the story of Mae, a college dropout, who returns to her hometown and deals with her struggles with disassociation and anxiety. And another one of the characters, Greg, actually confines to Mae that he may have bipolar disorder.
More recently in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, you play as a protagonist that suffers from psychosis which is often a mental health trait that just gets applied to villains usually. In Hellblade’s case, the game is so impactful that it actually comes with a warning at the start of the game because it doesn’t pull punches with the depictions it portrays. It can, at times, be deliberately disturbing, especially to those who may have suffered from similar experiences. It’s pushing boundaries in places that other mediums may be afraid to venture.
So, as you can see from this very small proverbial dip in the very larger ocean, it’s clear that mental health and digital are inextricably linked and things are getting much better in terms of mental health awareness and the tools that are available to us. But we’re not there yet. If we were, I wouldn’t be up here doing this talk. I want to see a world that people who have mental health disorders, that digital doesn’t just have the potential to be life-changing, but life-saving.
So, what I want you to ask yourself is; what can we do? What can we do as individuals? What can we do as a company? In fact, here at RocketMill, we already hold digital workshops that look to make use of the resources that we have available to us to start making a difference. And, most importantly, what can we do as an industry? Because this industry’s full of invaluable tools and resources and most importantly, so many talented people that could use those skills to help start making a difference and help those who need it most and those who don’t have the means to help themselves.
But while I hope for a day where everyone can get the ability to save their own lives at their fingertips, the best way right now to reach out and get help is to talk to someone. Whether it’s a friend, a family, or a charity. Because when things are at their darkest, you’re never truly alone. There will always be someone out there who wants to help you. Thank you.