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Writing about mental health for children and young people

Author: Amy Hupe
Warning: This post mentions suicidal thoughts and feelings

We recently worked on a mental health project for NHS Gloucestershire. On Your Mind Glos aims to help children and young people up to the age of 25 find support for their mental health.

One of the most interesting challenges we faced was how to write about mental health for a younger audience. Here are five lessons we learned along the way.

1. Add value, not noise

As part of the support finder, we wanted to provide guidance on different types of mental health support, self-care advice and mental health conditions.

But during our early research, some of the young people we spoke to told us they felt confused and overwhelmed by the amount of mental health content that already exists. Overlapping and sometimes conflicting information made it hard for them to know what to trust.

So we agreed we’d only add content on a topic if we could add local context, say something new about it or explain it better than it was being explained elsewhere. 

After reviewing information about Mental Health Conditions on the Mind website, we concluded that it was comprehensive, and clear enough for a young audience. 

Rather than recreate it ourselves, we created a single Mental Health Conditions page with a list of links to Mind’s guide.

The content tested well in user research and we learned that young people trusted it more when it was linked to from our NHS-branded website.

2. Be clear

When writing for a younger audience, it’s important to remember that they might not know all the same terms as adults.

For example, as part of the support finder, we needed to ask whether the user’s GP was in Gloucestershire. 

When we tested the question in research, a number of participants didn’t know the term “GP”.

Based on this, we updated the question, adding “your usual doctor” in brackets after GP.

3. Test content with marginalised users

To find relevant support options, the support finder asks users what kind of support they’re looking for. One of the original options we gave was “I want some ongoing help to get better”.

The wording seems fairly innocuous, but when we tested the support finder with a Transgender user, they spotted a problem.

Having already answered that they were struggling with issues around their gender identity, they felt that the phrase “get better” made it sound like the support finder  was suggesting conversion therapy.

While saying “get better” might make sense for someone who’s struggling with disordered eating or anxiety, it’s not appropriate for people struggling with their sexuality or gender identity.

Thanks to this feedback, we updated the wording of the option to “I’d like to understand my feelings and learn ways of coping better”.

4. Watch out for assumptions

On Your Mind Glos isn’t a crisis service, but for safety reasons, one of the first questions the support finder asks is whether the user is feeling suicidal. 

If a user answered “yes”, we assumed they were in danger and routed them out of the form, directing them to phone 999.

However, when we tested this question with one user, who answered “yes”, they were frustrated, saying “Of course I’m suicidal, but that’s not what I need help with now”.

They explained that they’d been experiencing suicidal feelings for several years as a symptom of depression, but weren’t planning to act on those feelings. Being screened out of services whilst trying to get help was a common and demoralising occurrence for them.

We realised we needed a way to let users with suicidal thoughts or feelings but no plans to hurt themselves move past the question and continue using the support finder—whilst sending users who did need urgent help to the right place.

5. Lean on the experts

To work out how to do this, we turned to an organisation that’s experienced in dealing with people who are feeling suicidal.

They explained that to differentiate between people having general suicidal thoughts from those who are in immediate danger, they split the question into two parts:

  • Are you having suicidal thoughts or feelings?
  • Are you actively making plans to end your life?

When a person answers yes to one but not two, they're advised to see a GP or talk to someone, but can continue their journey without requiring an urgent care option. 

After talking to the Samaritans, we updated the support finder to follow this approach. 

In conclusion

The web is a busy place and includes a lot of mental health related content for children and young people. It’s important we don’t make it harder for them to find by adding noise without value.

Using clear language is what content design is all about, but it’s especially important when writing for children and young people, who might be less familiar with terms adults use.

Testing content thoroughly with users helps identify the right words to use, as well as making sure content is as kind, safe and inclusive as possible before it goes out into the wider world. 

And when dealing with a complex area like mental health, it’s always worth turning to the experts who can make recommendations based on first-hand insights and experience.

Read the full case study: Lowering barriers to mental health support

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