Note: The following column is longer than my usual offerings and I hope, after you have read it, you will understand why.
“Don’t you think it’s kind of….trendy….now, all this mental health stuff?”
The question came from a cab driver as I was on my way to a school last week, but it’s been asked to me by a huge variety of people in far-flung locations during my decade’s work as a campaigner and educator in this area.
The answer is, of course, an unequivocal "no". Mental health issues, just like their physical counterparts, have existed for as long as human beings have. The idea that they’re a "first world problem" is also a total fallacy – different countries have different vocabularies and coping strategies, but you’ll find just as much of what we would call depression, anxiety and psychosis in the developing world as anywhere else.
What has undoubtedly shifted recently are the levels of stigma associated with mental ill health. Prince William revealed during a speech at the Davos World Economic Forum last week that as recently as three years ago, when he first set up the royal mental health charity Heads Together, he could not find a single celebrity who would speak openly on the topic. Now, one can barely open a newspaper or magazine without a high-profile person revealing candid details of their psychological struggles.
The notion that mental ill health has become somewhat "aspirational" is almost exclusively the result of how these stories are presented, worded and illustrated, after they have been sieved through the tabloid media colander. It’s little surprise, when stories of anxiety and eating disorders are served up in 150-word summaries next to tittle-tattle about who wore what label and who was caught snogging whom, that the message has become somewhat confused.
And never was a story more misleadingly told than that of 20-year-old Manchester university student Archie Day, who died as a result of suicide in October last year.
Don't blame tech for mental ill health
I had just finished speaking to parents at an evening session in nearby Bolton when I first heard about Archie. “Did you see that story about the young lad who killed himself because he lost his phone?” one of the Mums asked me – following with “I’m so worried about kids today and their dependency on technology”.
A study from the Royal College of Psychiatrists last month revealed what I have long suspected: that we tend to exaggerate the negative impact of technology on young people’s mental health. Furthermore, "screen time" is pretty much a redundant phrase in the modern world, since a person clutching a phone or tablet could literally be doing anything from sexting to reading a Jane Austen novel to watching a documentary about theoretical physics.
Parents are understandably concerned, since technology represents a gateway to an invisible and potentially dangerous world where they cannot always supervise or protect their children.
So that’s why lurid headlines about suicide stick in the minds of parents. Equally, however, they don’t bring them any closer to genuinely understanding the complexity of the issues being discussed. In fact, they actively perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes.
There is no evidence to show that discussing suicide within responsible and safe parameters has a "triggering" effect. However, most charity guidelines emphasise the importance of talking about "whys" as opposed to "hows". When I asked the Samaritans, who are widely considered to be the gold standard of suicide reporting research, about the headlines relating to Archie’s death, they said “…suicide is complex and rarely if ever down to one issue”. They also pointed out the specific mention of methodology in the headlines and the fact that neither The Daily Mail nor The Sun had signposted to further sources of help and support for vulnerable readers, contravening their guidelines.
The Ollie Foundation, a charity specifically set up to prevent teenage suicide, echoed this sentiment, telling me: “We understand the need for stories to stand out on a page. However, media guidelines should have eliminated this kind of attention-grabbing headline which can trivialise poor mental health and undermine the work being done to support those who may be struggling to ask for help. Understanding the complexities surrounding suicide and poor mental health will help journalists write more respectful, informative and compelling articles, which may even help save lives."
It can also, of course, help educators to broach the issue. According to Time to Change, 6,000 people lose their lives to suicide in the UK every year – so the chances are at least one person in every school has somehow been affected by it. Archie Day had only recently left school and the reporting of his death caused a ripple effect of considerable distress to the pupils in his year group and the teachers who had taught him.
Healthy dialogue about suicide prevention
I spoke to his sister, Emily, who echoed the message of the charities above by emphasising that her brother’s death was not down to one factor and it certainly wasn’t caused by the loss of his phone. She said: “My brother is one of the many victims of society’s failure to address the deep-rooted stigma surrounding men’s mental health. The tabloids sensationalise suicide for the purposes of clickbait journalism and, in doing so, trivialise a very important and prevalent issue. I want the media to be part of the solution, not the problem. Therefore, it is essential that we raise mental health awareness, encourage a healthy and open dialogue about suicide prevention and challenge stigma when we see it.”
A friend of Archie’s, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that he “had always been very open about his mental health issues with me and encouraged me to seek help for my own. He had a history of anxiety and depression, and was honest about that. I think because of how lively, bubbly and sometimes silly he was as a person, people couldn’t always see he was struggling…..I wonder if people would have seen him as just a bit 'off the rails'.” She also added that Archie had sought help for his mental health but that it “hadn’t necessarily materialised”.
The picture I pieced together from Archie’s friends, family and school is a multifaceted one. It shows a young man who was warm, loving and keen to help others whilst often struggling with his own mental wellbeing. It tells of someone who, like so many others who experience the same conditions, made extra effort to hide his depression and anxiety by putting on a cheerful, extroverted front. But it also shows a young man who, contrary to what we are so often told to expect, was explicit about what he was going through (he even made vlogs about his own mental health issues) and suggests that he was failed by a system which didn’t give him the support he needed.
Suicides are the result of a multitude of factors
Dick Moore, a brilliant educator and father to Barney, who died seven years ago as a result of suicide, sums it up best when he says: “When my Barney died seven years ago, people said, and still say, that the reason he took his own life was because his girlfriend ended their relationship. I tell them that that cannot be so as a large proportion of us go through a broken relationship at some stage without taking our own lives – just as a large proportion of people lose their mobile phones without thinking about suicide. Every suicide is a complex and unique event with a multitude of factors involved, which, cumulatively, might lead to the decision that life is too painful to go on. To focus on a lost phone is simplistic and wrong. Depression is an insidious illness and far from helping its readers to understand more about it, such articles merely increase stigma and lack of understanding.”
This is, like all young people’s psychological states, so much more complicated than a relationship with a screen.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here.
Since this article was written, The Mail Online has changed the headline on its story about Archie Day, after his sister Emily made contact. Tes also contacted The Mail but has not received a response.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please visit www.natashadevon.com/advice-support, where you will find links to charities that will provide safe, reliable information, advice and support.