June 2nd, 2016

One giant leap for youth mental health

Fifty years ago, on 2nd June 1966, NASA landed Surveyor 1 on the surface of the Moon, paving the way for the Apollo missions.  If you grew up in the 1960s and 1970s you were surrounded by the buzz of the space-age, with the advent of satellites and lunar rovers. It looked for a time like all humanity’s problems would soon be solved by technology, with robots doing all the work…

Scroll forwards to the present day and we are in the midst of another global revolution – focused on digital communication technologies.  It’s happening on an unprecedented scale, with 2.3 billion active social media users and 3.8 billion unique mobile phone users and impacting on almost every area of public life.

Web, social media and mobile computing developments have all fed a surge of interest in technology solutions for health. These range from physical health supports like exercise trackers, uses in dementia care and smartphone-based systems for diagnostics like the PEEK Vision project. The World Health Organisation recently summarised this emerging landscape, with its report “E-Health – When, Not If”.1037

Technology for mental health

Emotional and mental health are seen as particularly fertile areas of tech development activity, with many thousands of apps and other digital systems available.  Given the historically underfunded and marginalised nature of mental ill health services, many would argue there is a pressing need for attention and innovation across Europe and beyond. An estimated 83 million people in Europe experience mental health problems and globally the price tag of inaction on mental ill health is gauged to be $16 trillion by 2030.

The most dramatic part of the call to action on mental health is the startling scale of problems among young people – 75 percent of adult mental health problems start during adolescence. And yet, as the work of the LSE’s Professor Martin Knapp and colleagues shows, more than half of young people with mental health problems don’t receive any treatment. He calls youth mental health neglect: “a moral scandal and an enormous economic mistake“.

Research-based organissations like Australia’s Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre (YAWCRC) and the UK’s MindTech Healthcare Technology Cooperative are demonstrating that digital technologies for mental health are no mere fad; they have been involved in a wide range of research and development programmes that show major potential for digital tools in promoting mental health and wellbeing, including for young people. YAWCRC summed it like this: “Plugging technologies into mental health systems is a no-brainer”.

What about the kids?

And yet… talk about technology and young people still seems to be dominated by the dangers and the downsides of the online world. That is not to minimise or ignore the risks that exist – but is a plea for a more balanced consideration of the impact of the digital world on youth wellbeing.

In their piece “Scare mongering about kids and social media helps no-one”, Teresa Swist and colleagues set out a case for a more holistic look at the impact and potential of social media and digital technologies.  They also recommended a more inter-generational approach, with adults reaching out to support young people’s capacity to recognise and deal with risk, along with enhancing the positive aspects of technology use.

A similar call emerges from the work of danah boyd, via her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Rather than resisting technology or fearing what might happen if youth embrace social media, adults should help youth develop the skills and perspective to productively navigate the complications brought about by living in networked publics

This is very much the premise that we have adopted in our Aye Mind work on digital youth mental health (and our earlier Project 99 exploratory phase). Funded by the EU’s CHEST programme, we have been working with young people to explore their experiences and the potential of the digital landscape.  Our goals were to create a digital platform and a suite of resources for young people to aid their mental health and wellbeing, as well as create guidance resources to support those who work with youth make better use of technologies.

Aided by a dynamic network of local and national partners, we have deployed a wide range of engagement methods to elicit a better understanding of their lives and how we might tip the balance in favour of positive applications of the “digital world”. And rather than seeing young people as passive recipients of adult-created technology, we have worked with them as co-creators of digital assets.  Check out the fantastically creative work of young people, devising wellbeing themed animated gifs, intended for sharing with peers. See also Young Scot’s special Aye Mind platform that blends in youth-created resources with pre-existing mental health support material.

AyeMind_Withalittlehelp-copy_withlogoWe’ve also created a comprehensive “workers’ toolkit” offering guidance on making more effective use of the digital landscape as well as curated a searchable database of digital mental health assets from around the world.

One Giant Leap

So, fifty years after the lunar landing of Surveyor 1, is technology for mental health the next big frontier?  Our key learning is that what you do with technology and who is involved in developing it matters most. Our “One Giant Leap” of understanding is not that technology will of itself fix youth mental health – though it has an increasingly valuable role to play. It is that we need to start seeing young people as partners in creating their own wellbeing. They need to be enabled through digital literacy and wider citizenship approaches to be active agents in this process. And that young people need multiple support options that work with the grain of their networked lives, backed by empathic adults.

We are hopeful that Aye Mind has brought a focus on the many “Small Steps” that need to be undertaken by workers and agencies to capitalise on the contribution that digital technologies can play in promoting youth mental health.

Trevor Lakey for the Aye Mind collaborative