04 – Can we please just talk about mental health?

Having began researching various avenues through which designers, photographers and other creatives have contributed to the topic of mental health, I came across an article discussing a designer’s approach to tackling the stigma surrounding open discussion of mental health issues. The project is entitled ‘Let’s Talk About Mental Health’ and was begun by Jessica Walsh after being inspired by her work with Timothy Goodman on another project, ‘12 Kinds of Kindness’.

1 in 4 suffer from a mental illness
This minimal, two frame gif created by Jessica Walsh [2015] is simple, yet effective in delivering the widely unacknowledged fact that 1 in 4 people suffer, at some point in their lives, from a mental illness. Therefore, what’s such the big with talking about it?

12 Kinds of Kindness

‘12 Kinds of Kindness’ is resolution/project undertaken by two self-described “self-centered New Yorkers, [who are] often focused on what’s ahead instead of what’s around them…” [Goodman & Walsh 2015] The format of this experiment is derived from the standard twelve-step program, known for its various applications in adapting behaviour. The purpose of their program was to explore ways through which they may become “kinder, more empathetic people”. [Goodman & Walsh 2015] Goodman and Walsh had previously undergone another self-directed experiment ‘40 Days of Dating’, a project which had resulted in many discussions around the concept of empathy and its role in modern society. With the intention of addressing their own apathy and selfishness, Goodman and Walsh settled on twelve steps that would be applied to their daily lives across twelve months and documented under the title ‘12 Kinds of Kindness’.

Step 4 – Don’t Beat Yourself Up

I'm Fine (Not Really)
Such a beautifully simple illustration by Jessica Walsh [2015] depicting the facades we present to the world out of need and expectation.
The fourth step of their experiment required Walsh and Goodman to focus their attention on past regrets and the concept of forgiveness. For Walsh in particular, this process was incredibly significant as she used it to open up about her personal experiences with mental health issues. She found documenting her story to be “incredibly empowering and freeing” [Walsh 2015] and enabled her to become aware of just how prevalent struggles with mental health is throughout society. During this step, Walsh became inspired by the amount of peers and colleagues coming forward with stories of their own experiences, and decided to set up the website ‘Let’s Talk About Mental Health’. This site would act as a platform upon which the stories of friends and strangers could be collected and presented to the world without agenda.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health

Sometimes I'm just lost inside my own mind
An honest, revealing statement of the realities of life with a mental illness. Depicted on letstalkaboutmentalhealth’s Instagram account [Walsh 2016b]
‘Let’s Talk About Mental Health’ is a generative website with a clear emphasis on sharing experience and understanding. Users are encouraged to upload their own words through a ‘Share Your Story’ link, which is placed as the first piece of content on the page after the site heading. What follows is the entire collection of volunteered stories, presented as opening snippets that lead on the full story. Beyond simply reading the words of others, users may leave comments on individual posts, being prompted by the default message ‘Start the discussion’. The language used on the site furthers the idea of this being a shared and open space, designed to give voice and a sense of community to those who feel isolated.

The brilliance of this project lies in its deliberate choice not to include a disclaimer as the lead in. The page instantly launches into the collated testimonies, forcing the user to fully engage with the content in order to derive its overall theme and purpose. The ‘Learn More’ link interestingly choices not to direct the user to another page of the site, but over to ‘12 Kinds of Kindness’ site, specifically the page where Walsh documents her mental health story as part of Step 4 of the project. She concludes by reflecting on what she learnt from sharing her story and how learning of other’s struggles inspired her to create this digital platform.

“Life is full of beautiful moments, but it’s also full of difficult and messy ones. I believe if we were all more honest and real, we’d all feel less alone in our fears and insecurities and find that they’re surprisingly universal.” [Walsh 2015]

Design Technologies

The final design outcomes of ‘Let’s Talk About Mental Health’ are a website and Instagram account, both of which are generative systems whose content is continually expanding through user and creator contributions. When it comes to the technologies utilised in this project it could be argued that there is no specific list. Whilst it is true that the website and social media outlets, in particular Instagram, are the predominant means through which this project evolves, I found it interesting to consider the myriad of forms through which people are first made aware of the project.

For myself, it was through an article I stumbled across whilst scrolling through a mental health and design Google search. The piece on Refinery29 [Jacoby 2016] contributed to the site’s mental health themed week run in March this year in partnership with Clinton Global Initiative University, and focused primarily on Walsh and her reasons for establishing the project. Alternatively, people could have reached the site through the ‘12 Kinds of Kindness’ project, whether that be their website, YouTube, or the hashtag #12kindsofkindness across many social media platforms. The hashtags #letstalkaboutmentalhealth or #myunfilteredlife are both used frequently on posts relating to the project and thus could engage individuals in the discussion.

The manner in which people share their stories could be equally diverse. Whether it be the comment section on the websites and Instagram accounts for ‘Let’s Talk About Mental Health’ or ‘12 Kinds of Kindness’, emails, hand written notes and letters, direct conversation with creator Walsh, or the use of a hashtag when uploading content to various social media platforms. Each format is equally valid and is an important contribution to the greater conversation.

“I was afraid to tell anyone what I was going through, and suffered in silence until it was almost too late. I hope in our generation we can move towards ending the stigma and shame around mental health issues, and I hope to contribute to this movement even if it’s in a small way.” [Walsh 2015]

When refined down to its core, this is a simple project wherein people from across the globe are given an opportunity to have a voice and honestly discuss their experiences with mental health. The manner through which they have delivered this message is not important. What matters is that they have felt comfortable enough and unashamed to share their story. Hopefully, through such honest and open discussion of the realities of mental health our global society will become more understanding and accepting.

 

References

Goodman, T. & Walsh, J. 2015, Twelve Kinds of Kindness, viewed 16 August 2016, < http://12kindsofkindness.com/>

Jacoby, S. 2016, ‘This Instagram Account is Starting a Crucial Mental Health Conversation’, Refinery 29, 29 March, viewed 16 August 2016, <http://www.refinery29.com/2016/01/101512/lets-talk-about-mental-health-jessica-walsh>

Walsh, J. 2015, Don’t Beat Yourself Up, Twelve Kinds of Kindness, viewed 16 August 2016, <http://12kindsofkindness.com/the-steps/dont-beat-yourself-up/jessie/>

Walsh, J. 2016a, Let’s Talk About Mental Health, viewed 16 August 2016, < http://letstalk.12kindsofkindness.com/>

Walsh, J. 2016b, Let’s Talk About Mental Health, Instagram, viewed 16 August 2016, < https://www.instagram.com/letstalkaboutmentalhealth/>

 

– Alexandra Macoustra

 

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