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We have been studying it for 3 months, we have been dealing with it most of our life, we are highly aware of the importance of engaging with it but we still find it incredibly hard to talk about.
Pauline and I are both product design students and together with Nele and Luisa who study communications we are team UP. In the context of “Hacking Utopia”, a human centered design project at the University of Arts Berlin, we are investigating mental health. This article explains our approach of boosting mental resilience and give you the chance to get involved in our project.
In our previous contributions on Edgeryders we described how we started off with the question of making sadness, unproductivity and inefficiency less shameful. We discovered two TED talks that influenced us greatly: The power of vulnerability by Brene Brown and Depression, the secret we share by Andrew Solomon. As later confirmed by the psychologists we interviewed, these talks made us understand that sharing our feelings is a key step towards mental resilience. Establishing a sustainable, personal connection this is necessary for recovery and growth. When we hide our condition, we ignore it, it becomes worse.
The issue of mental health is especially important in the context of youth. Young adults are increasingly affected by issues like anxiety or depression. Their circumstances make them particularly susceptible to psychological stress. As many leave the familiar framework of home and school and move into an uncertain future, the newly independents have to find alternative support structures. New living situations, potentially in a new city or even country, starting university or a job, all these developments entail a multitude of mental pressures. In a time where social media is so influential, standards of self-representation are an added factor. According to one of the psychological guidance counsellors at Studentenwerk Berlin; stress, loneliness and self-image issues are very common results among many students.
As part of our research, we interviewed several university students from different backgrounds about negative emotions like these. One question was how they handle situations of feeling sad, stressed or lonely. The main insight was that everyone experienced this shit, but no one liked to deal with it. A prominent theme in the conversations was the difficulty to talk about emotional problems – be it a missed project deadline, a loss in the family or an eating disorder. It was mentioned that it was easier for them to open up to someone who had similar problems and could empathize. However, it is difficult to identify the people that can offer support when everyone tries to hide their struggles.
As a result, most people don’t decide to seek help until they had been in increasing pain for a prolonged amount of time. Yet at this point of outreach, recovery is still far. As we learned from our interviews, it can take months to find care that is suitable to the individual and more months to see any progress. While there is a great spectrum of available options, the general idea of psychological treatment is still stigmatized. It is often not even perceived as a possible solution. The psychologists we interviewed mentioned that many of their patients came to them only after being referred by a general practitioner or friends who had tried therapy themselves.
Yet, we cannot force people to seek help. Keeping quiet about insecurities is a justified mental defence mechanism. When we share our feelings, we are vulnerable, exposed. Oftentimes, the recipient is simply not equipped to offer a good, empathic response. This could almost be described as a societal incompetence, stemming from a general lack of awareness.
We want to challenge the current attitude towards psychological care. Our project tries to de-stigmatize psychological pain and make the sensitive, ‘taboo’ issue of mental health more present and approachable to the public. We believe that udnerstanding and empathy is vital to provide good care for people that are suffering from emotional distress. We want to make it clear that feeling shitty is nothing to be ashamed of, but actually a very common thing. Also, we want the impact of these feelings to be understandable, so that more people can offer informed, helpful responses. When this happens, the threshold of reaching out is lowered, which in return allows problems to be addressed before they develop into serious mental conditions.
There are a number of inspiring projects who deal with exactly this issue of awareness. One clever way artists are spreading awareness is over the internet. Tumblr users like Rubyetc, Beth Evans or Sarah’s Scribbles have gained quite a following with their funny, relatable comics about everyday struggles. Seeing that you are not alone in your suffering can be very comforting. Recently, illustrator Gemma Correll created a series of drawings as part of an online awareness campaign for Mental Health America to visualize what #mentalillnessfeelslike. Their campaign encourages people to open up about their conditions and harvest the power of sharing.
A related approach can be found in the various devices that exist to simulate old age. Suits like ‘GERT’ are designed to make the wearer feel the impairments that come with aging: stiffness and limited mobility, decreasing strength, blurred sight, muffled hearing. The concept was originally developed to enable caretakers of elderly people to better understand the needs and fears of their patients. Now, gadgets with similar effects, designed by students at Weimar University, are being exhibited at the Hygiene Museum in Dresden, allowing the public to gain the same understanding.
In general, public exhibitions are a valuable source of inspiration when it comes to reaching people and conveying information. A prime example is the ‘Happy Show’, set up by design firm Sagmeister & Walsh. Verging somewhere between art and education, the show throughly explores the theme of happiness in a graphic, creative and interactive manner. Another show that encourages people to actively engage with the exhibit is Erwin Wurms ‘Bei Mutti’. Visitors are isntructed to interact the artefacts on display, effectively becoming a piece of the art themselves.
In order to achieve our goal we propose a combination of an interactive exhibition and an information booth. This pop-up stall can easily be set up at universities events like open days and conferences.
We will exhibit various sadness simulators, wearable objects for the crowd to try which simulate the effects of being depressed, stressed or anxious. These objects have been inspired by an online survey we have conducted in order to find out how people physically feel when they are in emotional distress. Out of dozens of responses we have extracted the most common themes: weight on the shoulders, head pulling down, brain fog and a general discomfort in one’s body feeling: hot, sticky and itchy. With these results we have designed various objects: A neck bender, a very heavy device to carry on his back being forced to lean forward. A helmet made of tinted transparent acrylic that simulates looking through a veil and muffles the sound of the surroundings and a really uncomfortable ill-fitting coat made of a super itchy and stiff fabric. We have more ideas but for now we have realized these three.
Those who are brave enough to test our simulators will receive a positive feedback. They will get to choose between 3 gifts: Stickers that encourage everyday task such as: “got out of bad”, “took a shower” and “washed my laundry” in order to demonstrate how difficult these tasks can be to certain people. They could also choose comforting cynical tea bags that they can grant a friend in need on a rainy day or shit shaped chocolate pralines to compensate for the horrors they have just been through. The exhibition will also include an interactive board in which participants can share their feelings caused by the simulators or just generally and a second board presenting useful information regarding mental issues: how to identify, approachable treatments, support groups and other solutions. The first exhibition will take place during Berlin University of the Arts Semester end’s exhibition and we hope it will continue to other universities around berlin and even in other cities in Europe.
If you hope so as well you are welcome to join us in a number of ways:
Support our Startnext campaign going online July 20th! Help us fund the first ever Shit Show and enjoy our moody merchandise (link tba)
Spread the word! Our first intention is to raise awareness of mental health issues. Please share our ideas and solutions, you might even help someone.
(It will also be nice if you would share our Startnext campaign once it’s up
- Participate our research, tell us how you feel when you are down in our survey or just share with us your Ideas and comments. We would love to hear some feedback and improve our project
Pauline Schlautmann: firstname.lastname@example.org
Omri Kaufmann: email@example.com
The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships - an ongoing program for community contributors during May - November 2016.