Distress Signals was a project designed to find a mechanism or message that would enable young people to support each other using social media. The research team worked closely with planners and creatives to identify the target audience and then work with them to devise a low-cost media campaign that could use social media to encourage young people to reach out to one another at the most vulnerable times of their lives, in particular the transition to university or work.
Being a teenager can be terrifying. ‘Real life”, whether a job, college / university or travelling often involves leaving home and the comfort blanket of friends and family. Being placed in an unfamiliar environment, knowing no-one, is also tough. But teenagers don’t always feel they can ask for help. The ages of 18 and 19 are a common time for the onset of a mental health problem. One in three people will be diagnosed with a mental health problem at some point in their life. Demand for mental health services by undergraduates is increasing sharply; 29% of students displayed clinical levels of psychological distress in a recent survey. Suicide increased by 170% in the two decades up to 2005. Young people continue to use Social Media as an emotional outlet and this can be harnessed as a tool to encourage a support system when young people are away from their close friends and family. Knowing a friend is there for you when you’re feeling hopeless can make a world of difference.
To inform the campaign development, we needed to find out:
Most young people feel uneasy talking about mental ill-health – or even ‘just’ unhappiness. 43% of first year students with a mental health problem don’t feel comfortable talking about it to peers. Half had experienced negative attitudes after disclosing a mental health condition. Our research identified potential clues to the state of mind of young people in social channels. They tend not to publish ‘cry for help’ messages but you can often identify signs online if you know someone well enough:
Whether going to university, travelling the world or entering full-time work, this transitional period is often turbulent for young people to become young adults and can be overwhelming and isolating.
Young people felt that for the campaign to be shareable, it must be authentic. They also felt it is important that the campaign does appear to be trying too hard or owned by an authority (e.g. Government) telling them what to do. While wanting something they can share in order to ‘spread the love’ while simultaneously raising awareness of the campaign, young people prefer to discuss deeper emotions in person, on the phone or in private messages rather than broadcast online where they could be misinterpreted. Therefore, the campaign should serve as the initial spark. It should convey a genuine and meaningful message but should allow for young people to be able to ‘own’ it by shaping it in a way that is relevant to them.
Whilst mental health and state of mind are relevant to young men and women there is a clear taboo for men around being open in this way on social media.
We have shared our creative ideas so far and listened to young people’s feedback and adjusted our approach accordingly, to ensure the creative ideas were led by the people we wanted to target. The final ideas have been tested in co-creation research sessions and we have discarded those they advised us to, focusing on the approaches they liked. We aim to launch the campaign in the early part of 2014/15 academic year.