February 14, 2023, by brzam5

The transformative power of animations for youth mental health

In the pandemic, Professor of Health Humanities Paul Crawford led a team of researchers and clinicians in a project titled ‘What’s Up With Everyone?’. This was in collaboration with Academy-award winning animators Aardman (Shaun the Sheep, Wallace & Gromit, and Chicken Run). Here, he talks about the transformative power of creative industries to better help young people deal with their mental health challenges.

Our project, titled What’s Up With Everyone?, gave voice to the challenges in life that young people told researchers they struggled with during this time in their lives: loneliness and isolation; perfectionism; competitiveness; independence; social media. An exciting addition was that the voices to the wonderfully quirky characters co-designed by Aardman Director, Dan Binns (MerveAlexCharlie  Ashley, and Tai) were voiced by five of the young people who took part in our project.

Reducing mental health stigma

We wanted to focus on the needs of young people who were transitioning from school to higher education or the workplace – a highly stressful milestone in a person’s life – and we sought to increase young people’s literacy on the topic of mental health; their ability to understand their own mental health and how to seek out appropriate help.

It was fantastic to see the importance of storytelling for exploring mental health. The five short, animated stories co-created with Aardman really do improve young people’s attitude towards, and knowledge of, mental health. It also increased their willingness to seek help and boosted their confidence in helping others, whilst significantly reducing   the stigma towards depression.

A huge success

What’s Up With Everyone? was a huge success. Here are some of my favourite highlights:

  • We reached more than 17 million people in the first four months alone.
  • We scooped the award for ‘Best Achievement for Social Media and Content’ at the 2021 Design Week Awards.
  • Celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Ovie Soko, Chris Hughes, Malin Andersson, Tom Read Wilson got behind the campaign.
  • We achieved more than 300 pieces of media coverage across print, TV and radio.

More recently, Aardman Executive Producer Lorna Probert congratulated the project on its transformational approach to youth mental health. She wrote:

“At Aardman we have always prided ourselves in being able to understand and connect with our audiences. We are very used to working closely with our audiences in developing our content – user testing is always an essential part of any of our projects but co creation took this one step further. We found that engaging young people in the creative process had the power to unlock greater understanding of the issues they face and the help they feel is needed, letting them be a part of a solution rather than telling them what they need.

“The project has shown us how vital it is to closely involve audiences in the discussion and creation around resources to support them and not to make any assumptions about what they need, like and feel. It has highlighted how   we can achieve greater connection, and therefore greater impact, in the content we create.

“We found it very enlightening to work with such a wide and multidisciplinary group of partners on the project. Having access to the wealth of expertise around mental health meant that we could validate the bigger picture of young people’s mental health and that the messages and content we were providing was backed up by accurate research. Through the project we have established a valuable network of contacts in the health and academic sectors which we hope will continue to be mutually beneficial for future endeavours to support public health.”

Commenting on the contribution of creative industries to public health, Lorna added:

“The project has demonstrated to us the power our creative industries can have in translating and communicating important messages around public health into engaging content which genuinely connects with people and has real positive impact. This project has given the whole team here a much better understanding of the public mental health challenges we face and the current infrastructure that supports it, as well as the needs and concerns of young people in this area. So, we hope – armed with this knowledge – we cannot-only provide better resources for our own staff and audiences, but also be alert to future opportunities to support initiatives around this.”

Global impact

In July of 2021, The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds in the United States joined numerous organisations and groups to support the promotion of the What’s Up With Everyone? campaign. The mission of The Clay Center, which sits within the Department of Psychiatry’s Division of Public and Professional Education at Massachusetts General Hospital, is to prevent, reduce, and de-stigmatize youth mental health conditions and illness through education. Further, the Clay Center has a mission to promote the social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioural well-being of children and young people.

The Clay Center published my blog post on its website, including the WUWE campaign video, feeding in from Aardman Animations official YouTube page, and includes a call to action to engage with the campaign through social media, and learn more at the WUWE official website. Following publication of the blog post, The Clay Center promoted WUWE through its own social media channels, linking back to each The Clay Center blog post, and various WUWE videos and resources.

Since posting, the WUWE Clay Center webpage has proved very successful.

  • Seen continually increasing traffic since first launching July 2021, with the most prominent increase taking place between July 2022-February 2023. This 8-month period has seen more than 4x the web traffic to the post when compared to the previous 12-month period (July 2021-June 2022).
  • Most visits to the webpage (86%) are from organic search traffic, followed by traffic from third-party sites (12%), including education platforms like Google Classroom and UMass Medical School.
  • Webpage visitors from organic search traffic spent an average of 1 minute 54 seconds on the page, compared to a 55 second average across industries, in the United States; even more striking, visitors from third-party sites spent an average of 3 minutes 58 seconds on the page.
  • The page has had visitors from more than 30 countries worldwide, including high engagement with the page from more than half of those countries – particularly the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Philippines, Canada, and Ireland.
  • As of March 2023, in the United States, The Clay Center’s WUWE post appears as the number three result when entering the search term “what’s up with everyone campaign” into Google’s search engine – preceding the Mental Health Foundation’s WUWE post of a similar nature. Further, when entering the more generic search term “youth mental health campaign”, The Clay Center’s WUWE post appears at the top of the search
    results list.

Incredibly proud

Dr David Crepaz-Keay, Head of Applied Learning at the Mental Health Foundation, has also expressed their gratitude for “the incredible impact that the ‘What’s Up With Everyone’ project has had on our work, the key staff involved and the broader organisation.”

He shared: “The co-creation process that was involved in this project was truly remarkable. At the Mental Health Foundation, we have always worked to develop the most engaging and accessible resources, but the unique approach taken in this project took our work to a whole new level. The project brought together top-flight creatives, leading academic partners and young co-creators to ensure that the messages and content provided were creative, evidence-based, and accessible.

“Through this project, we were able to leverage the power of co-creation, which allowed young people to play an active role in providing insights, ideas, and feedback during the creation process. We were also delighted to collaborate with leading creatives from the Aardman team, whose expertise in animation contributed to the project’s increased engagement, making mental health information more relatable and accessible to young audiences. Besides, we were able to align the messaging and content of the resource with that of professional bodies UK-wide.

“We are incredibly proud to have been part of this project and to have played a role in raising awareness of young people’s mental health while breaking down the barriers to accessing support. Our organisation is now better positioned to create resources that are truly co-created and informed by the communities we serve, thanks to this project’s unique approach.”

Creative public health

It is stand-out that Aardman, the creators of so many iconic animated films, consider themselves transformed by their engagement on this project. I was delighted by the potential for what I call “creative public health” – that is, the huge potential for creative industries to join with the more familiar resources of the NHS and social care, to advance the health of the nation.

I am proud of what our young people, colleagues from collaborating institutions at University of Nottingham, Loughborough University, London School of Economics and Politics, supported by its formal partner, Mental Health Foundation, Happy Space and clinical advisers have achieved with this project. It underlines the significance of working together across disciplinary borders. The big questions demand transdisciplinary, cross-sector answers.

The films should continue to be of interest to young people at school, preparing for college, university or the workplace, but also appeal strongly to those in the 13-17 age group, beginning to explore how to develop mentally healthy approaches to life. We also found that young adults and adult audiences were interested to learn about these resources, possibly for themselves or the children and young people they are responsible for.

The campaign, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was led by Professor Paul Crawford, with support from Dr Sachiyo Ito-Jaeger  and Professor Elvira Perez Vallejos, University of Nottingham, along with contributors from Loughborough University, the London School of Economics and Politics; the Mental Health Foundation, mental wellbeing charity, Happy Space; and with young people’s mental health expert, Dr Dominique Thompson.

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