Debating Mental Health Project – Report!

Group of three people

Think you’ve got young people all figured out? You’ll need to think again.

In this guest blog Jawwad Mustafa reports on the Debating Mental Health online debate which took place in December 2020.

On Wednesday 2 December 2020, Emerging Minds partnered with Debating Mental Health and Didcot Girls School for a thoughtful and enlightening discussion between a group of young women aged 13 and 14 years. This was the culmination of a project kindly supported by the University of Oxford Public Engagement in Research Seed Fund. They talked about how COVID has changed young people’s worlds, why they’re not concerned about defining what it means to be mentally healthy and how we can forge a world that is better for our mental health. They had a lot to say!

Can we build a mentally healthy world post COVID? Date: 2nd December 2020

The young generation is passionate, socially aware and wants to change the world. A 2018 Ipsos MORI study found that Gen Z (born between 1996 and 2010) had higher social activism than the previous Millennial generation. This week, TIME Magazine celebrates its first ever ‘Kid of the Year’, a clear recognition that young people are a growing force, so here’s their insightful thoughts in their own words.

The full COVID experience

COVID-19 has broken down barriers

This generation has been hugely reshaped by the COVID response. Being stuck at home for months due to a virus has really given them the space to reflect and rethink about what they find most important, but it also hasn’t been easy.

“The six months I believe was something I needed and something that helped me a lot and helped me find myself.”

“It’s been blow after blow after blow. When there’s so much going on at once it can be demotivating. I struggled with that quite a bit during lockdown, just the fact there was so much going on and it wasn’t slowing down.”

There’s been a big worry about the uncertainty and questions that came as a result of the upheaval.

“Will we go into another lockdown? When will I see my friends again, am I going to be able to do my tests? All that sort of uncertainty on what’s going to happen is probably affect a lot of people at the moment.”

For some, going back to school has been welcomed, but it’s not been with challenges.

Our structure has been broken - how do we rebuild?

“I think after lockdown it was like a fresh beginning and we’ve all changed quite a bit on how we do things. It has had a positive impact as well.”

“It’s the fact of having to rebuild your daily routine. Before lockdown, I guess we all had quite structured routines After six months, it’s definitely hard to get back into that routine and that affected mental health.”

Social media: the good vs the bad

Social media is a convenient culprit for everything that’s ‘bad’ for this generation, but when asking them how they feel about it, they saw a balance in grasping social media’s potential for good while also noting how it can be detrimental. It’s been a benefit through lockdown:

Social media - positive - means people can connect. But also negative - people wonder why their life isn't like this?

“During lockdown, through social media I’ve met some of the closest friends that I’ve had, and I believe that’s helped my mental health a lot, and I don’t think we should disregard that fact.”

“If we didn’t have social media now, we would struggle a lot.”

“It can be a good coping mechanism – you can talk to your friends and you can play games which can calm you down quite a lot.”

Social media CAN support people ... & raise issues! Images show two people with their arms around each other while holding tablet devices. Another device has the words Black Lives Matter on the screen

There’s also recognition for social media’s power for pushing for our collective social good.

“It’s also important that I’ve seen especially a lot over lockdown that people have used [social media] to promote important issues and how we can help, such as BLM and the environment and how we can protect our environment.”

But it’s not all raving reviews. There are challenges with these platforms, but young people recognise it themselves and have the solutions for the issues.

“Social media had a big impact on our generation. I think it had a big impact on what they were doing every day because models were showing the dream lifestyle and people had a lot of time to think ‘I’m not having that life; I’m not doing things right’.”

“It’s really important to stay controlled on platforms like social media because there can be some really horrible things going on, like bullying, and also your self-image because there is some online-verse reality, and I think it’s really important then to control how long you’re going on for.”

Mental health: what does it mean?

Young people are struggling with their mental health. Compared to older generations, young people were three times more likely to describe their mental health as ‘very bad’ and they identify that a way to resolve this is through more support.

“[Mental health support] needs to be made more available, I know some people who’ve have their appointments pushed back and not given the support.”

They see that COVID has changed perceptions of mental health as we’ve gone through a lot in terms of isolation and loneliness, and through our togetherness and collective experiences we can be more supportive, and crucially, supported.

“With people not being able to see people they want to see; they’ve been able to relate to people who have mental health issues and they understood a bit more what they’re going through, and it’s torn down those barriers of stigma.”

“The effects of COVID-19 have caused people to have more complications, so if every single person has someone they can rely on, I believe everybody could increase their mental health.”

It’d be a mistake to believe that all young people intuitively understand mental health, it needs to be spoken about too.

“Mental Health wasn’t something I’d really think about before this activity but now I think I have a different perspective on Mental Health, and I realise how important it is, it has educated me a lot.”

And when talking about mental health, it’s important to speak to them about it in a language they understand:

“The assemblies that we have they either something we can’t really relate to or something that’s a bit too adult-like. The school can aim something that’s directed at us, not something that’s too childish or too adult.”

“The schools and governments have a strong stereotype on the subject [mental health], like breath for a couple of seconds and it’ll be fine.”

SChools can help - assemblies, counselling

So, how can we define good mental health? They don’t think it should be defined or labelled.

Everyone's definition of "Mentally Healthy" is different

“For me I don’t there is something called being mentally healthy. We need to stop making this expectation on what being mentally health means because that can put more pressure on you.”

“We shouldn’t define mentally healthy. We just need to find our definition.”

The future according to young people

It’s no secret COVID has changed our world for good. This generation has been shaped by their experiences of the pandemic, so what do they think the future will look like? Firstly, while they accept there’ll be challenges, they’re optimistic about getting to a mentally healthier world.

“We’re going to be thinking about challenges that we’ve never thought of before because we’ve never lived in a time like this, so it’s going take a lot of work, but we’ll get there.”

Young people believe that the government has a vital role to play in understanding and providing the resources to help people, it can’t shy away from this responsibility.

“A lot more people higher up, in the government, need to understand how it feel for people who have been in lockdown by themselves.”

“I believe there is a lot the schools can do but I feel it’s more of the government’s responsibility to do this. Schools don’t have as much power over it.”

The government needs to understand the experience of isolation. Image shows a cartoon version of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Also someone sitting in a prison cell

It can’t be done without using social media to bring about a world that’s much better for mental health.

“After COVID we need to use technology and social media and use the positives to our advantage, so we can use them to promote healthy wellbeing.”

They believe that it’s not just about the country we live in, but there’s a global responsibility.

It's not just the UK - What about the Developing world?

“We have to think of those developing countries as well and how their mental health will be affected and how their coronavirus situation will be handled, so I think we need to take into account the UK, but we also need to think about it globally.”

Young people accept that there’ll be changes but they want control over their circumstances.

“For me, this has become my normal, so not having to wear a mask or not having to sanitise my hands seems odd to me. The idea of that change is not necessarily scary, but there’s almost like a comfort in that routine of knowing you’ve got control of what you’re doing.”

Their final takeaway?

“What I feel most optimistic about is how we all feel passionate and how serious we are on the subject of mental health, and how we really want to see change and make sure it’s better for future generations.”

It’s clear that this generation of young people are passionate and are aware of their power to change the world through their mastery of tools, like social media, and access to the internet and being aware of global social issues.

They’ve just started finding their voice, it’s time for us to listen.

Jawwad Mustafa

Jawwad Mustafa is a Psychology graduate and mental health activist, who has consulted multiple youth organisations. He is currently working with Emerging Minds as a communications consultant and is trained as a co-facilitator with Debating Mental Health. In his spare time, he loves to bake cakes and google his random thoughts of the day.

We are also grateful to Tom Bailey for providing these images as a visual representation of the discussion.

To catch up with the videos from this exciting event, check them out there:

Thank you to the University of Oxford Public Engagement in Research Seed Fund for their support of this project.