Mental health audio tour makes young people’s voices heard
by Guest Author on 9 Oct 2019
This month, a new audio tour has launched at the National Gallery to dispel myths surrounding mental health. Tour project lead, Dr Helen Fisher from King’s College London, tells us why she thinks that getting people thinking about mental health is so important. The tour is funded by the MRC, part of UK Research & Innovation.
My research work focuses on why young people develop mental health problems. A lot of the benefits from the work I do are quite far in the future – it might take 20 or 30 years for outcomes of our research to trickle through to actual practice. That’s a long time to wait to make a difference. There’s an element of frustration that it takes such a long time, while knowing that right now, out there in the world there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, which is preventing many young people from getting the help they need.
That’s why over the last five years I’ve started working with artists to creatively engage the public in conversations about mental health. I want to have a broader, quicker impact on people’s lives.
I think art is a great way to get people to engage with the subject of mental health. Certainly much more enjoyable than reading a dry academic paper! Art provides an opportunity to open up conversations about topics such as mental health that many people avoid discussing in daily life.
It’s really important that across society we start to feel more comfortable talking about mental health and accept that we all have times when we struggle with life and need others’ help. This greater awareness and understanding would make it much easier for people to reach out for support as soon as they need it, which could make a huge difference to their lives.
There are lots of myths surrounding mental health that are perpetuated across society and the media. Misconceptions such as young people are more sensitive nowadays, or that people with mental health conditions are likely to be dangerous. These myths are harmful as they create a broader level of stigma around mental health, meaning people often don’t speak out if they’re starting to have issues or feeling distressed.
We see particularly in our culture that for men it’s a big issue – this idea of manning up and not showing your emotions. If people don’t talk about it early on and instead keep it in, those problems can get worse and they can feel increasingly isolated. Then it can be even harder to get help. But I know from my own research that just having one supportive person to talk to can be protective, of even things like psychosis.
We need to dispel these myths in order to improve public understanding of mental health and provide a supportive environment for those experiencing distress. That’s what this audio tour of the National Gallery aims to do.
Insights from experiences
We worked with a group of young people aged 16-25 to create the audio tour, supported by the McPin Foundation. Working with them was amazing. They’re so inspiring with the level of passion that they bring and their incredible insights. It has also given me a whole new perspective on the research I conduct and the types of questions I want to investigate.
Adolescence and early adulthood are important periods when the initial impacts of mental health occur for many people. So, it’s key to get people in that early phase engaged in having these conversations and talking to other people about it. It’s important to have young voices represented to help other people understand what it feels like to be a young person with mental health issues.
Dispelling the myth that everyone experiences mental health issues in the same way, one of the participant voices on the audio tour explains: “You might end up feeling guilty that your difficulties don’t necessarily fit symptoms or the box or the image of a certain [mental health] issue and you feel like you shouldn’t ask for help. Everybody has a different understanding of their own mental health, and I think that develops as you research more or speak with people who are open about it. That’s the importance of speaking about your own experiences to others.”
Getting people talking
I went in with a broad aim to increase awareness and understanding of mental health through the tour but nothing specific about how we might do that, because I knew the young people we spoke to would have great ideas. It was them who came up with the concept of building the tour around challenging different myths surrounding mental health.
These are myths still prevalent in society, misconceptions their families and friends still had, that prevented them feeling fully comfortable talking about their problems, or prevented them from accessing help. Some of the young people we worked with have also kindly provided their own voices and experiences on the tour.
My main hope is that visitors will spend time thinking about mental health during the tour, leaving with more understanding of this important topic. We want to spark thoughts and conversations, even briefly, about mental health, and for people to challenge their own misconceptions.
The tour is available free to National Gallery visitors for six months and as a progressive web app created by Antenna International, which is accessible through any smartphone.