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Talkin’ about My Generation

By Jeff Kraemer
Network, Winter 2007

Brian tries to persuade his friend Keira to come out of the bathroom, where she’s locked herself because she’s upset about school. He realizes he needs professional advice on how to help, so he looks up a crisis centre, reaches for his kitchen phone – the cockroaches cry ‘Scatter!!’ when he arrives – and makes the call. Brian, Keira and the cockroaches are all characters in an interactive game on the Mind Your Mind website, which aims to help young people manage stress, crises and mental health problems. It does so by offering mental health information where young people are most likely to look for it: online.

Mind Your Mind started in 2004 as the youth outreach project of the London Mental Health Crisis Service – the Canadian Mental Health Association is a partner – that focused on crisis planning workshops and an interactive mental health promotion game. Project coordinator Maria Luisa Contursi says that the people behind the project saw they needed a website when they couldn’t accommodate all the requests for outreach presentations.

‘We also know that 99 percent of Canadian youth are online,’ she adds. ‘Therefore it makes perfect sense to be where they are.’

What’s striking about Mind Your Mind, though, is that it does more than speak to young people. It persuades them to speak to one another, through personal stories, art, short films and games.

In a section called Mind Tools, you’ll find places to ‘Do Stuff’ like sending the animated Brian to get help for Keira, venting by writing ‘graffiti’ messages on an online ‘wall’ and printing them (‘Print it, tear it up or stick it up on your wall! Your words… your call!’), and creating a printable ‘S’ list, for people you can turn to for support. There’s also a ‘Play Stuff’ section, where you’ll find a homelessness word search written by a 17-year-old who spent part of her early adolescence on the streets. As players click on letters forming terms like ‘no love,’ ‘shelters’ and ‘job search,’ completed terms are automatically crossed off a list. There’s a ‘Scan Stuff’ section with reading material on busting anxiety and how exchanging stuff for sex is not a fair trade. And there’s the ‘Send Stuff’ area, where you can choose from and personalize any of a dozen Mind Your Mind e-cards to e-mail to friends. There’s also an art studio where more than a dozen young people have posted artwork, and a film gallery that includes short films on art and self-expression, what anxiety attacks feel like, stigma, and ‘visual poetry.’

But the heart of the site may be the personal stories it publishes. Over 40 young people have shared their stories on the site. Here you’ll find, in their own words, a 23-year-old from Ontario discussing his depression and thoughts of suicide as a teenager, and his coming out. A 17-year-old talks about how she stopped harming herself, beginning with a visit to a youth crisis clinic. Lauren, an 18-year-old from Australia, describes how she came through an abusive situation and urges her readers to remember that bad times don’t last forever. Many of the stories on Mind Your Mind’s site end with variations on that theme, and many declare that they’re sharing their story because they believe in what Mind Your Mind is all about. Many contributors give advice based on their own experiences, urging others to reach out for help if they need it. And while few use the term ‘recovery,’ it’s clear that several see sharing their stories as a way of helping themselves as much as helping their peers.

These ‘Written Word’ stories formerly resided in a section on the main site, but the staff recently moved them to the MindF#!k blog, a moderated space where young people can post their personal stories and poems, anonymously if they wish, and post responses to one another’s contributions. Contributions must go through the moderator and must be respectful of others, but as the name of the blog suggests, there is room for attitude. In a post announcing the blog, a staff member wrote, ‘As you all know what a blog is, I won’t get into it, if you don’t know, look it up at wikipedia.’

Contursi says the key to making a website that young people will respond to is making it relevant to them.

‘It needs to reflect what is important to them, and the only way to know that is to ask them. So that’s precisely what we do – we ask them what they worry about and why. We ask them what they would like to see on the website, what works and what doesn’t. We encourage them to also share their stories because we acknowledge that peer-to-peer exchanges can be powerful and transformative. We have a number of community partners and professional advisors, but in the end it is truly a youth-driven resource.’

In keeping with the approach of reaching out to young people where they are, Mind Your Mind has also set up a profile at MySpace, a networking site that’s hugely popular with young people, and recently the program started posting videos to YouTube, a video-sharing website that rivals MySpace in popularity. A young person looking for information on schizophrenia can watch a video on YouTube in which a young woman – identified on the Mind Your Mind site as Clea, a 24-year-old artist – talks about developing schizophrenia at the age of 14. As she says that she developed distorted thinking, a few glowing blobs roll across the video, distorting the image. When she says she believed that alien scientists were watching her from the sky, planning to clone her to create another race, the video fades to a shot of a man in glasses and a lab coat superimposed upon dark, rolling clouds. She talks about how art has helped her in her recovery, and her hopes and plans for her future. The video was viewed over 1,450 times in the space of a month.

The profile on MySpace has generated interest in the site, Contursi says, which in turn has led young people to volunteer their stories or their time. Some of their Street Team members, she adds, have volunteered from Australia and the United Kingdom. These team members promote the site, and mental health, to their peers, teachers and counsellors. They give Mind Your Mind feedback on projects, take part in game development, and organize local events and fundraisers.

Mind Your Mind has also made a point of establishing a celebrity gallery on its own site, soliciting advice from popular Canadian artists like Alexisonfire and Hot Hot Heat on getting into the music business and on dealing with stress. Bif Naked, a punk singer, even narrates an animated film on the site.

While the site’s vision statement says that Mind Your Mind is committed to reducing the stigma associated with asking for help, Contursi says that other factors appear to be greater obstacles to help-seeking, although most young people would agree that stigma plays a role.

‘The youth that we’ve spoken with have indicated that one of the primary reasons they don’t seek help is because they’re just not familiar with the process,’ she says. ‘They don’t understand the helping relationship and how what they learn in session can be applied and generalized to their real-world experiences.’

Mind Your Mind is now working on a starter kit for youths and professionals that addresses the dynamics of helping relationships. And the program has launched a Professional Portal, a section of the website where service providers can learn how to use the site in their practice with youth consumers. For example, young people might feel more comfortable talking about their own experiences if they begin by commenting on something they’ve read on the site.

There’s also a page of ‘Youth Talk,’ where Mind Your Mind has posted comments from a youth focus group on different aspects of the counselling process. One comment reads, ‘I see this picture on the desk with a guy in shorts and a tee shirt with his family. The guy in the room in a suit doesn’t look or act like the guy in the picture. I’d rather work with the guy in the picture.’

Contursi says feedback on the site has been ‘overwhelmingly positive.’ Youths have said that the site ‘has helped them manage their moods, help a friend who is struggling, taught them something new about themselves,’ while service providers ‘have used it as a way to bridge support for their clients who are not coping well and need somewhere to turn to at 1 a.m. when no one else is available.’

‘As one service provider indicated, it’s more than a website – it’s an intervention.’

Jeff Kraemer is the e-content developer for CMHA Ontario.

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