An interview with The Mix
Online Sports Editor Henry Hood speaks to Chris Martin, CEO of The Mix, on issues facing young adults today and their approach to mental health.
Just to start for our readers – what does The Mix do?
So The Mix is a national charity that provides advice and support to young people aged 11 to 25 right across the UK, and we do this through digital and virtual channels. We have a website with over 1500 articles on it about everything in a young person’s life from exam stress to drugs to homelessness to family and personal relationships. We have a big online community, and we have a multi-channel helpline on phone, web chat or email, and we have a small counselling service too. So if you imagine it as a sort of funnel, we have this huge outreach on social media going down to our counselling service. We did 8000 sessions of counselling last year, and we reached around four a half million young people in last year right across the UK.
It is super important to us so you should be able to come to The Mix to talk about anything you want in your in your life, any challenge which you are facing, but we have to be realistic that mental health accounts for about 80% of the conversations we have. So these will either mental health as a primary or secondary factor: a pure mental health issue or actually a challenge which you’re facing or some type of change your life that is driving your anxiety or depression.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is that we are quite a small team of 38 people, but we reach four and half a million. It’s kind of incredible but we can do this with technology and the 200 volunteers we have that help us. It’s super important to us that young people sit at the core of our work, so everything on the website is co-designed with young people, we have young people speaking for us as ambassadors, 80% of volunteers are under 30 and we even have two young people sitting on our board to help ensure that the service is authentic and driven by the actual needs of young people.
So, you speak about 80% of the people coming to talk about mental health; what are the main things that come up?
Anxiety and depression are the most common, a strong sense of low self-esteem also comes up a lot too. We’ve also seen particularly during the pandemic a big rise in young people who are self harming and also a rise in young people talking about body image issues. So certainly those have been the sort of big growth areas where we’ve seen a lot more people seeking support from us. We have a lot of young people seeking help for their suicidal ideations and suicidal thinking. As you might imagine, we call an ambulance for a young person at risk of loss of life about 1 1/2 times a day through our various platforms, including our 24 hour text service which obviously brings in a lot.
There’s a wide range of young people struggling to cope with their day-to-day experience and are feeling they can’t cope at all and they just want it all to stop. In my view, addressing mental health is so important because it robs people of opportunity. If you’re really struggling with your mental health you don’t do as well in your exams as you should, you don’t go to that party, you don’t play your sports, and it’s just robbing you of something that you should have to allow you to go on and be your brilliant self.
Speaking of the pandemic, why do you think that it has affected the mental health of young people so much?
We do a lot of research with young people, particularly research with our young ambassador group. We have a group of about 14 young people who came together to assess the effects of the pandemic on young people, and they spoke more widely to other youth groups around the country to get a big picture of what was happening. The things which they brought up were a sense of powerlessness: for young people lockdown happened to them but they’re not going to get particularly ill from coronavirus and yet they lost their liberty and there was very little consultation with the government around what was happening to young people so that’s disempowering.
The second piece that they found was that sense of isolation and loneliness. Being outside of your family environment or your academic environment is really important and that’s really been robbed. If you feel on your own it’s very hard to cope with even the smallest challenge so loneliness was really difficult. Around loneliness there was what they called skin hunger: they just wanted to be physically with their mates which hasn’t been possible in lockdowns.
The third piece was body image issues and people feeling they’re not looking after themselves. Being stuck at home all the time meant a lot of people were feeling they’re eating bad and or getting fat. All those things and the sense of not feeling so good about yourself also drove up online bullying and cyber bullying. If you don’t feel great about yourself you do lash out at others and that could create quite toxic environment online, which for many was their only way of communicating with friends.
There was a lot of young people who were also dependent on local community services and they lost those. So regular access to community mental health service, regular access to youth clubs, even regular access to the support from schools and teachers and mentors was all disrupted and that can leave young people drifting. That can cause trouble very, very quickly if you’re dependent or you need to help with those services so that was really difficult for a much broader range of young people who are accessing those things.
In an ideal situation what would you like schools and universities to be able to offer perhaps in hindsight of what’s happened in the pandemic but also going forward?
There’s been nowhere near enough investment into the support of student mental health and school mental health. We worked with Student Minds and Shout to launch a platform called Student Space which tries to bring together the best possible mental support for students. There’s a whole range of articles and content created with medical professionals to support students because nothing was being offered to them on that scale.
In terms of longer-term investments in young people’s mental health I would like to see additional investment into ensuring that there is there is more on demand access to wellbeing support for students. There are still unacceptable waiting lists; many universities have wellbeing services, but you just can’t get into them. Students are often waiting 12 weeks, which is longer than an academic term, to get their referral to the wellbeing services. After a young person has been brave enough to ask for help it’s not acceptable that they should have to wait that time, so we just need more resources going in there.
I do also feel that there needs to be a little bit more focus around the workforce to allow them to have some sense of how they support young people. Young people build relationships with lots of different people, it might be a really supportive teacher, or it might be a youth worker but often they’re not in positions to help with mental health stuff. A teacher can really help you out with Latin but can’t do anything about self harm so improving that sort of general knowledge that could allow better sign posting for people could help massively.
There was a fantastic scheme which was proposed last year called ‘youth mental health hubs’ which was led by Young Minds. The premise was to have informal hubs which young people could just drop into just like you do with a sexual health clinic. There’s a great example of this called The Hive in Camden.
Something that comes up with hotlines is ‘active listening’. Could you expand on active listening and why something like that helps so much?
There is something very powerful about somebody listening to what you say in an empathetic way and allowing you to articulate what you’re going through. We don’t have much access to do this as human beings as we have always got a little bit of our armour on when we talk to our friends. Using active listening on our hotlines can slowly nudge people in the direction to reflect on what they’re going through and start building their own recovery strategies. I can hear in our phone calls young people relax and unwind as somebody actually listens to what they’re saying and as they calm down they begin to take a better stock of what might be going on with them and begin the process of sorting out how they want to act on this. The Mix isn’t Childline, so we can’t tell people what exactly to do; it’s not just suggesting a simple fix and then you’ll be fine, it’s about callers working through their issues and having the knowledge and being connected to support to solve their own things.
I was looking at the data on The Mix’s recent discussions and a lot of things tended to spike around Christmas. Would you be able to expand on why that happens?
Christmas is a very highly pressured time for lots of young people. It’s the family dynamics, it’s the isolation, even financial stress since you may not have that money to buy lovely things for the people that you love so there’s a lot of triggers around Christmas. To deal with some very specific things, for example around eating disorders, Christmas is the one day of the year where you’re going to eat a meal in front of other people. You’ve also got to deal with the whole world talking about how great it is to come together with family and friends and if you feel like you haven’t got any family and friends that’s isolating.
We tend to see in our service, during the Christmas period itself, fewer people coming through but with much more severe things; usually people who have been very badly triggered or affected or cannot get access to services because of Christmas. But there are always two sides to the coin, and it’s important to remember Christmas can also bring a lot of joy.
Almost every young person uses social media and of course it has so many benefits in terms of bringing people together, but of course there are quite a few issues like body image issues or generating pressure to look a certain way. What other issues do you think social media brings up and what would you like to see be done from social media companies to perhaps help tackle that?
People use social media a lot and that would not be the case if there were they weren’t getting considerable benefit from it. When you look at Facebook’s own research on repetitive scrolling without talking to people it helps highlight why it can be damaging. Using it for it’s benefits, like staying connected with friends, is better for your overall well-being than just endlessly scrolling through pictures of people living their dreams on holiday in Dubai.
I think we need to be mindful of the effect of algorithms too; they will give you more of what you want but they’ll also give you more of what you don’t want if you start going down a poor path so we need to take a bit of responsibility too. I think we also want to be careful we don’t allow social media to lead us into behaviours rather than us do what we want with it, so don’t let social media tell you how you should be living your life then use social media to enhance it.
For the companies themselves I think that the pressure needs to remain on for them to be reactive and to understand the effect of their service. There’s a big thing called The Online Harms Bill which is just on its way – it’s just going through parliament now – which will place liability legal liability on people who have caused harm through the online environment. It is technically designed to prevent facilitated terrorism but in in it there’s there’s all other sort of elements of online harm as well, so I suspect things like this will really start to accelerate social media companies towards attempting to police their environments better.
There’s a very good analogy for this: when you go into private apartment block, what the landlord chooses to do in there is up to them, but when you go into a Public Library there’s a lot of regulations on how you keep that safe space. I think we’re just at the tipping point where social media is so commonly used it is a community space, so it should be as safe as going to the shopping centre.
Most specifically, I’d like to see a lot more context based training if there’s any way to put it within the apps. Your bank should tell you how to use online banking properly and provide financial advice, so it would be very useful if social media companies offered something similar on how to use their service safely.
The thing to bear in mind though is that the people who work at social media companies, who we work quite closely with, are just regular people. They are not in the business of trying to mess up their customers and they are trying to help you. Inevitably, since they’re a business, if their service is not nice to use customers will go elsewhere so there is a pressure to change with the times.
If you look back to maybe 10-20 years ago there was a massive stigma around mental health. Nowadays there are starting to be discussions and that stigma is breaking down. If we were to look 20 years ahead what would you hope would be the case with mental health?
Prevention is always better than cure. At the moment, we face a huge mountain to climb because services are struggling to keep up with demand, but the reality is that mental health is a part of daily life. Everybody has ‘mental health’ and it fluctuates over their lifetime. There will always be challenges to face, so I think a really good future vision is where we are all very well trained and supported to keep ourselves in good physical and mental shape because it will allow us to deal with the ups and downs of life. If we can have that prevention piece in place to make sure we can deal with the challenges of life we’ll have much better long-term outcomes, and hopefully we won’t find ourselves getting into crisis. Then, hopefully, it will mean that though there will be people who will always need that additional support we will have more of the resources available to help them.
We know we can do amazing things, like developing a Covid vaccine in 18 months or getting something like AIDS under control, so I’m really hoping for that level of research to go into mental health so we can reach that long-term prevention goal.