“It sounds ridiculous, but I’d never truly considered my own mental health before I joined five years ago,” admits Shirin Zaid, Acting Head of Communications at YoungMinds, one of the UK’s leading youth mental health charities. “I assumed it was something that happened to other people, but we all have mental health which we must look after; we all have ups and downs, and we all need the emotional literacy to understand it, articulate it and seek support for it, without fear of judgement. For young people it matters so much more – they are the future.”
YoungMinds, which received a grant from Nominet’s #RESET Mental Health Fund, may have been founded almost three decades ago but their work is only becoming more urgent; NHS stats have shown a worrying rise in mental health issues across this key demographic. Through the hard work of people like Shirin and her team, the charity provides online resources and advice to those struggling with their own issues, as well as to the people around them: parents, teachers and carers. They also offer training for professionals who work with young people, equipping them with the skills and awareness to create the right environment to offer support.
The digital space is undoubtedly the best place to engage a generation largely living life online, but Shirin freely acknowledges that technology is both friend and foe when it comes to young people and their mental health. “The digital world has created a new set of problems and additional pressures for young people,” she says. “They can’t switch off like previous generations might have been able to; they can be bullied in their own home, through their social media networks. It’s pretty scary but we have to ensure that the same technology can empower young users with the tools to help them cope with whatever issues they are facing.”
YoungMinds also recognises the impact the changing world has on the concerns of young people – not all issues are by-products of digital lives. The current pandemic is just one example, as Shirin explains: “Can they still go to uni? Will they want to? Will there be jobs available to them if the country is plunged into recession? Will their parents and grandparents be safe? Young people have many more reasons to worry today, in addition to the daily toll of living in a time of crisis.”
In this instance, the charity has responded quickly, posting coronavirus-tailored content that saw noticeable spikes in terms of unique users on those pages. There has also been a rise in use of the whole site: “from January to May this year we had 1.3m unique users across the entire website, compared to 1.8m total during 2019,” says Shirin. “As around 50% of our traffic comes from organic searches, there is definitely a growing need for help.”
Pandemic aside, the content Shirin produces is also reactive to the young people themselves. YoungMinds works with young ‘Activists’ who advise the charity of the suitability of their resources and make suggestions for new areas of focus. “Recently we did a quiz campaign on social media, ‘what character are you in lockdown?’, which offered young people a chance to reflect on how they were feeling. We can share a bit of soft advice with their character reveal. It taps into how they use social media, what they enjoy doing – and it’s been one of our most popular campaigns.”
For Shirin, successes like that are what makes the role so satisfying. “I love the creativity of getting together with our brilliant team, bouncing ideas around following input from our Activists, coming across a concept that we think works and then delivering it,” she says. “Knowing it makes a difference and reaches so many people is just amazing.”
Shirin is clearly fulfilled by her work, but happy to admit that it took her a while to find the ‘dream’ job. “If someone had described this job to me when I was 16, I would’ve jumped at it,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to help make a difference – I genuinely wanted to save the world, even as a child – and I love to write. But as a teenager I had no career role models and didn’t know how to find what I wanted, in a role that used all my skills.” Having heard of law, she assumed that being a human rights lawyer would tick all her boxes. It was only when she emerged into the jobs market, having excelled in her degree and scored a distinction at law school, that she realised, “my heart just wasn’t really in it. I still knew I really wanted to effect positive change for people but didn’t know how or where. I had a complete panic, to be honest, with no idea of what I was good at or what I wanted to be doing with my skills.”
It took a few more years before she found her way to YoungMinds and communications. In fact, she only initially joined the charity on a short-term contract to help with a project, but quickly ingratiated herself with the communications team. “I was just fascinated by it and kept offering to help with everything, eager to learn more,” she recalls. Eventually they hired her, and within five years has risen to Acting Head of Communications. “I almost can’t believe I’ve finally found what I was looking for!”
It’s fortunate for YoungMinds too. With such an intelligent, tenacious and passionate individual on board, they know they can reach their audiences with the messages that matter. It will be an endless task – responding to the changing world and needs of the young people with tailored, powerful content – but one that is well worth doing. YoungMinds is providing the future generation with the mental health support they need to get through today, but also the self-care skills to maintain their wellbeing throughout their lives.