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Social Media and Mental Health: Distress Signals Campaign

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.

Three in ten teenagers will experience a mental health problem

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. 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.

A mixed methodology, multidisciplinary approach

To inform the campaign development, we needed to find out:

  • Young people’s social networking behaviour when going through periods of being low or distressed
  • Whether there are signs that can be picked up by other social network members
  • Useful or preferred forms of response to such signs – online and off line

Looking for a campaign that lives online

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:

  • Oblique messages
  • Pointed song lyrics / film clips / images
  • A sudden reduction in online activity
  • Late-night postings. The teenagers we spoke to in research were most likely, if they noted that a friend had posted something out of character, to send them a text, Direct message or private Facebook message asking them if they were OK. With this in mind, it felt appropriate that a campaign would live online to:
  • Raise awareness among teenagers that their friends might behave oddly in social channels if / when they’re unhappy.
  • Encourage them to get in touch if they thought a friend was struggling.
  • Explain how they might offer help (i.e. get in touch via a personal message, text or phone call and offer help and support)
  • Remind teenagers to take action if they were concerned about a friend

Targeting young people starting university

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.

The geographical separation of friendship groups makes social media an integral part of keeping in touch 18-20 year olds have emotional maturity that equips them to spot when a close friend is feeling low on social media, whereas the younger audience (13-17 year olds) are often caught up in the drama on social media, making it a trickier platform to use in this way.

Straddling the need for a credible campaign that is shareable yet private

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.

  • It should be flexible in terms of platforms, adaptations and applications
  • It should leave room for young people to use their own terminology and apply their own behaviours
  • It should be backed by a website which clearly explains the cause for those who are interested in it
  • It is essential that the campaign doesn’t ‘call out’ any friends as having a mental health issue or ‘down period’ - A more subtle approach is required to avoid ‘unwanted attention’ that young people can use to nudge their friends and remind them that they are thinking of them
  • This would then have the potential to lead to a deeper, more meaningful private conversation.

Campaign process and next steps

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.

Download the full report here