Lucía D (she requested not to be identified with her surname) grew up in a village in Cádiz, in southwestern Spain, and now, at age 22 and about to finish her university degree in Seville, she has begun psychological treatment. “It all started in elementary school,” she explains. She was isolated from the rest of her peers, had recurrent feelings of loneliness and of being misunderstood, and now has low self-esteem, a passive attitude and episodes of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. “No one paid attention to me,” she adds. “I was invisible.”
Her parents, who are farmers, did not know what was happening and when they raised the issue at her school they received a standard response: “It’s just kids’ stuff.” But Benedicto Crespo-Facorro, director of the Mental Health Unit at Virgen del Rocío Hospital and psychiatry professor at Seville University, says that the demand for assistance has doubled in recent times, often due to suicidal thoughts.
We can identify alterations at these ages that could be connected with what happens at an adult ageBenedicto Crespo-Facorro, psychiatry professor at Seville University
Cases like Lucía’s are very common. Crespo-Facorro, who is also a researcher at the Cibersam mental health research center, points out that 70% of mental illnesses begin before the age of 18. “Even though the person is not aware of it, there are non-specific changes that, a lot of the time, begin at those ages. They are not manifestations of the illness, but we can identify alterations at these ages that could be connected with what happens at an adult age.”
It’s a difficult task to provide information and training, to eradicate the social stigma associated with mental illness and to let teens know that it is possible to overcome these problems. Efficient communication requires for the speaker and listener to be on the same wavelength, and this is often not the case with mental health problems among teenagers.
To deal with this, the psychiatry group PsyNal and Cibersam – along with the Spanish Science Ministry’s Fecyt science and technology foundation – have developed a digital platform called Mentescopia. They are making use of social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, as well as podcasts, to spread scientifically proven information about mental health, in a language preferred by young people.
“This is nothing to do with you! You think it doesn’t affect you! You can prevent this,” read messages on TikTok, while Oriol Marimon, a member of the scientific communication collective Big Van Ciencia, dances to the urban rhythm of Soñar, a song by the Spanish rapper Morad. With rock music in the background, in another multimedia message, he warns: “Everything that happens around you can also cause negative changes in your brain, making you predisposed to suffering mental illness in the long term.”
One of Mentescopia’s TikTok videos (Spanish audio).
Lourdes Fañanás, another Cibersam researcher, goes into more detail about this latter aspect of the platform. “Neurodevelopment is as if we were constructing a very complicated building and the general plans were written in our genes. It’s the same for all human beings. The way that this building is constructed is going to depend on other elements: who is making the building, whether it rains during construction, the temperature, whether or not someone makes a little mistake… Genes dictate the epigenetic development of a highly complex organ, but the environment is essential for proper construction.”
Crespo-Facorro explains that all of the research carried out by the group until now has had a response in scientific circles and in conventional media, “but not among teenagers, who are going through a critical period, when mental illness begins,” he explains. “We have to work with them for prevention and prediction. What reaches them is distorted information. On social media, anyone could be talking about suicide. We’re interested in youngsters gaining an awareness with accurate and approved information.”
“We are also fighting against stigma and taboos,” he adds. “We want people to know what mental illness is, the fact that we need to help, that sufferers should not be left out or isolated.”
Celia L., another 22-year-old who goes to university with Lucía, says she did not like going back to in-person classes after the pandemic. She gets top grades but lacks the social skills to deal with her peers. It all started at school. “What I liked the least about it was recess, unlike all the other kids,” she admits. Celia does not want professional help. “It’s just the way I am,” she says.
We want people to know what mental illness is, the fact that we need to help, that sufferers should not be left out or isolatedBenedicto Crespo-Facorro, psychiatry professor at Seville University
According to Crespo-Facorro, “certain conditions go untreated because people put up with them or say, ‘This is what I have to deal with.’ There are patients who come with serious symptoms who have just been there, in silence, outside the circuit.”
The social media initiative is also seeking to encourage people to speak more about mental health, to lose their fear. “Not long ago,” the researcher continues, “people used to say ‘I don’t need a psychiatrist, I’m not crazy.’ But it is not just these serious mental health cases that can be improved, but also, let’s say, intermediate pathologies, if there is a good initial orientation. The sooner the better, because these things are more difficult to treat the later they are caught.”
The essential element of the platform is its scientific backing. Cibersam is made up of 25 research groups from eight different Spanish regions. The aim of this is to distance the platform from applications with no scientific rigor that are trying to take advantage of the growing concerns over mental health.
Mentescopia is trying to differentiate itself from such apps, not just thanks to its scientific backing in all aspects, but also because its objective is not to intervene, but rather to inform and to train. “We don’t want to go down the path of self-help, advice or orientation, but rather to supply all of the information,” Crespo-Facorro explains. “It’s a debate that we have had, but our idea is to focus on the most rigorous part scientifically speaking, for it to have credibility for youngsters and for it to reach them.”