Mental health problems are very real and very human. Yet people suffering from them face stigma and social isolation. What role can design play in lifting this stigma and bring about a sense of compassion and understanding for those that struggle? We investigated different design approaches aimed at offering a helping hand to those in dark times, placing others in their shoes and bringing people together.
Connection and understanding: Sometimes we just need a friend
Mental health issues can be hard to notice and therefore difficult to treat. Their often highly personal experiences and causes mixed with a general lack of available therapy and safe-spaces blocks some of the key elements to finding some relief: open conversation and companionship.
Take Spur.org’s project ‘OldMate’ for example, an initiative set to help elderly people out of their isolation. Research shows that people aged 80+ are more likely to take their lives. This because of the often severe social isolation they experience in the form of losing a partner, friends and fading family ties. Old mate connects elderly people with young volunteers that vouch to spend at least one hour a week doing a pre-chosen activity with someone older to kick isolation’s butt.
DESIGN FOR WHEN NO-ONE SEEMS TO BE LISTENING: A BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER
In a demanding world full of stressful triggers, social pressures and neglected mental health, being an active member of society can be challenging. So much so that some people opt to step out of it. According to the World Health Organisation, South-Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, prompting Korean state officials to take drastic action to stop the statistic’s growth. Different measures such as influencing press coverage on suicide, the restriction of pesticides and obstructing the access to subway tracks, to name a few – have helped to decrease the country’s number of self-deaths.
Mapo bridge in Seoul is a good example, also known as the ‘Death Bridge’, it has become a frequently visited spot for those that don’t see any other option. The number of tragedies on Mapo Bridge grew so much that City officials turned to advertising agency Cheil Worlwide that rebranded it to ‘The Bridge of Life’ in hopes that a more positive name would bring about a more positive change. Next to changing its name, Cheil Worldwide also turned to the power of design to change the experience and choices of Mapo Bridge’s heavy minded visitors. Resulting in an innovative and interactive light system on the bridge’s rails that lights up when touched, revealing personal messages, comforting song lyrics, funny jokes and ultimately an illuminated path to an SOS Phone.
An innovative and interactive system on the bridge’s rails that lights up when touched, revealing a personal message urging the person to rethink his or her’s choice – with an illuminated path leading them to an SOS Phone.
Let’s play pretend
The severity of Korea’s suicide ‘epidemic’ becomes apparent in the unconventional forms of therapy that have been brought into existence. Like the Hyowon Center in Seoul for example, which offers staged funerals as an unorthodox approach to help people that deal with suicidal thoughts.
Multiple times a week a group of people come to witness their own staged funeral ceremony and the outpour of human emotions that usually accompanies it. The session which includes actually being put in a closed casket acts as a form of catharsis in a country where speaking about personal issues and mental health is a tricky topic.
Multiple times a week, a group of people comes to Hyowon Center to write a speculative goodbye letter before entering a staged funeral in which they will be fully awake and present.
DESIGNING COMPASSION: Walk a mile in VIRTUAL SHOES
There are more ways in which simulation can help to better understand different states of mind, whether it be to relief one’s own anxiety and emotions, or to experience living with a mental illness first-hand. In the videogame ‘Hellblade: Sensua’s sacrifice’, you are placed in the reality of Senua, a warrior from an ancient historically accurate Celtic tribe called the ‘Pict’ that used to inhabit current day Scotland. After losing her love, she travels to Helheim (Hel) to save his soul, battling spirits and gods on her way. Sensua is convinced she suffers from a curse, just like her mother did before she was brutally murdered by Sensua’s deeply religious father who believed she was possessed by demons.
“It is easy to see the pain and suffering caused by physical diseases or physical trauma, it is not so easy to see the mental suffering or trauma or severe mental illness. But what if we could find a way to see it ? There are many things that happen in the world of Hellblade that make perfect sense within the context of Senua’s mind. To complete Senua’s quest, you have to internalize and accept the logic and meaning behind these things to progress”
This curse which invades Senua’s mind in the form of voices (the game’s narrator being one of these voices) and a darkness that seems to follow her every move, is what we today would constitute as schizophrenia. It is up to the player to save the soul of Sensua’s lover, listen and make pacts with the voices in her head and make their way through worlds distorted by intense hallucinations – all while listening to immersive soundscapes set to put them on the wrong path. The studio that developed the game, Ninja Theory worked closely with a team of psychiatric experts and scholars like Professor Paul Fletcher from the University of Cambridge and writer and psychologist Professor Charles Fernyhough from the University of Durham an expert on voice hearing.
Hellbade deals with all pre-mentioned aspects of what it is to deal with a mental illness such as schizophrenia, from its sensations like hallucinations, to the social isolation and taboo felt by Senua and her mother. Hellblade is a great example of how new forms of media can offer a way to breach societal and emotional gaps and bring about a sense of compassion that makes it easier to bring mental illness into the open and into conversations.
In the words of Ninja Theory founder Tameem Antoniades “It is easy to see the pain and suffering caused by physical diseases or physical trauma, it is not so easy to see the mental suffering or trauma or severe mental illness. But what if we could find a way to see it ? Games are capable of drawing you in for hours on end, playing the role of a character who’s different from you, experiencing their perspective, and actively involving you in a world that functions with a different set of rules. There are many things that happen in the world of Hellblade that make perfect sense within the context of Senua’s mind. To complete Senua’s quest, you have to internalize and accept the logic and meaning behind these things to progress”
In the game Hellblade: Sensua’s Sacrifice, you play a Celtic soldier named Sensua who battles schizophrenia.
The game and its music programming are designed to simulate what it’s like to experience schizophrenic episodes.
Grab a phone, have a chat – There is someone on the other side of the line!
Have you ever struggled with some of the things described in this article? Then please know that there are places and services you can turn to, like 24/7 prevention lines that can offer relief and support in times of need for you or a friend. Your general practitioner can also offer professional advice and help in initiating the process towards finding adequate therapy.
If you are located in Netherlands it might be nice to know that you can always rely on 113 Suicide Prevention and their highly-trained team of volunteers. You can contact them via 0900-0113
For our international readers, we would like to refer you to this website with a list of international suicide hotlines.