THE WORLD is FINE

By Felix Noller and Morten Kantsø

Current affairs prove this is far from true, the world is not fine. Unless of course, you refer to it as an acronym for ‘Feeling Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional’. Method is working to identify ways of preventing mental health problems for the next generation.

There is a severely negative emotional climate in the world today.
If you read the press, watch any news channel or spend time on social media, it’s impossible to miss the intensity of emotions that dominate current affairs: rage, fear, uncertainty, disappointment, conflict and division.

However, there are also reasons for optimism, enthusiasm and celebration. The challenge to each of us in terms of mental health, is to balance our worldview and our emotional response to the positive and the negative.

With insight into human behavior at the core of our design work, Method has a deep desire to investigate this global concern and surface some starting points where design can play a positive role in mental well-being and mindfulness of people. To understand this challenging area, we began with research into the next generation of people who will shape the world — children and adolescents. For anyone concerned with teenage bullying through social media, or who find themselves explaining the motives of a terrorist attack to an 8-year old — the reason for this focus must be obvious.

Outtake of a collage made in our co-creative session by a 12-year-old

It seems clear that we need to remove the stigmas around mental health. One in four people will have a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime. Regarding the youngest in our society, we see one in ten children and teens affected by a mental health problem.

At Method, we believe that raising awareness and finding creative ideas on how to cope with the issue is a shared societal responsibility. Supporting organizations focused on bringing mental health to greater public attention helps to invite others to join the discussion. A design approach enables us to focus on the people involved in the topic and respects the stance from a human perspective. With all the complexity and personal sensitivity embedded in any mental health discussion, the eagerness to understand must be tempered with a willingness to listen.

“Social stigma is still a problem” (Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, London, UK, (1))

When we listened, we heard how social stigma is still a problem. We also heard of cuts in public mental health initiatives and eroding social structures. Method listened to parents that acknowledge the importance of talking about emotions in their family, but that don’t know how to take action. We came to understand how important it is to talk about mental well-being at an early age; establishing means of communicating and creating dialogues early is essential to provide support when children enter their teenage years. Method also witnessed a growing market in mindfulness and mental journaling apps, adding to the rapid growth in the collection of health data. And we discovered how social media and time with a variety of personal devices can discourage intimate conversation in family homes.

This is why, for our third installment of Designing with Data, we look into the possibilities of early screening of mental illness in children and teenagers. How are parents and caregivers alerted to issues with their children’s emotions, before mental health becomes a more serious problem? In order to answer this question, we’ve become involved with the Mayor of London’s Thrive initiative, Owls, and the 2017 Anna Freud Hackathon, parents and teachers, as well as invited families to join a co-creation process. With Method at an early stage of discovery, this essay sets out to describe our intentions and objectives, to share the journey, and while in the process encourage others to join the conversation.

Lines of enquiry

Given any complex problem area, it is helpful to set specific focus areas for research. In this case, we identified three main lines of enquiry to lead us into the design process.

How can we understand what ‘normal’ means to each individual?

We know that every child’s behavior is unique and ‘normal’ can be very different in each case. But how can we define ‘normal’ behavior to set individual benchmarks to measure against? In our co-creation workshop with families, we uncovered many different ways children express their feelings. The challenge of capturing what was normal to each child provoked much debate.

How does emotional awareness influence mental health?

While adults often know about the importance of asking for help, children may not be aware of the concept of harmful or positive emotions, and their contextual causes and effects. How can we help children identify and talk about their emotional states?

How do we focus on prevention rather than cure?

An array of preventative methods exist that can be practiced in a domestic relationship context, from modeling a healthy lifestyle to simply talking about feelings. Yet, parents may not be aware of volatile changes in the mental health of their children or find it difficult to raise the topic. Thus, how can we encourage open communication about complex emotions to maintain a healthy and mindful family?

Outtake of a collage made in our co-creative session by a 12-year-old

Initial Insights

Educating family members about mental health prevention methods helps create a nurturing family atmosphere

Most parents struggle to read their child’s feelings, or detect early symptoms of depression. And once problems occur, parents/caregivers may feel uncomfortable about seeking help or even intimidated by the idea of engaging mental health professionals and medical institutions.

“When he was really bad he couldn’t affect change in any way” (Mother, London, UK)

Building trust and understanding of spheres of influence is required to help children cope with mental distress

Getting to know how a child or teen feels is not as apparent as just asking how they are. Understanding feelings requires trust and patience. Children don’t always open up the minute their parents come home. While expression may be restrained, young people absorb a massive amount of nearly unrestricted social input every day: a myriad of social media feeds, an always-on mentality, various cultural phenomenon, and the many different people a young person interacts with throughout the day combine to affect their well-being and mental distress.

“Young children find it easier to talk to a puppet or soft toy than an adult” (Teacher at primary school, London, UK)

Triggering intrinsic thinking processes and raising emotional self-awareness can help children cope with complex feelings.

Making the time to talk is important. Talking to someone who feels down or depressed is often and rightly seen as an integral part of helping. However, children and teenagers may keep their negative feelings and thoughts to themselves. They may not have the awareness nor willingness to express their feelings to others, or fear judgement by their peer group. The act of fundamentally changing a mindset not just requires a chat, but it requires the space for an internal thought process.

“I always ask them, but they will not always tell you” (Mother, London, UK)

Preparing children for changes that lie ahead can make them less vulnerable to mental distress

Childhood and adolescence is a stage of constant internal change. At the same time, it is a time when children find themselves in an always changing environment: attending a new school, making new friends and experiencing different family situations, as well as coping with massive social media input; generally leaving behind a safe and sheltered primary school/home to discover a busy and often stressful lifestyle. While some adapt to this new environment easily, others may be left behind. Social stigma and insecurity within new and unknown situations may cause or further affect a troubled mind.

“Normal is different for each child” (Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, London, UK, (1))

Data may be leveraged to understand a child’s individual personality and detect abnormal behavior

Every child’s behaviors, expectations, reactions and emotional responses form a unique individual that cannot be given full support by offering generic help. It is important to understand a child’s individual state of ‘normal’, in order to identify when something ‘abnormal’ could mean they are troubled or feel depressed. While many commentators speak to the negative impact of social media, the extensive use of social media may equally provide a valuable source of data to understand the different stages a child goes through.

Parents on average spend 34 min of face-to-face time per day with their kids.

Using new technology to improve mindfulness within a safe family context shouldn’t introduce obstructions to the valuable time that family members spend together

For parents and their children, face-to-face time is rarely as much as they would like. Getting to know what is going on in each other’s lives often happens through social media or via text. Thus, getting a clear picture of a child’s emotional state is challenging. And children may not take the initiative to express how they feel themselves. The knowledge gap becomes even more apparent when guarded children grow up and discover their independence.

Evolving new concepts that address the questions and initial insights we have described here is our objective. We are currently in the process of discovery. Method values any input and invites you to share your story of tackling mental health. Drop us a line if you would like to get involved or want to know more.

Join our journey and let’s talk mental health for the long run.


(1) Dr. Emilios Lemoniatis, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, The Tavistock and Portman, NHS Foundation Trust