Ways of Being: An Online Cultural Intervention to Support Mental Health in Young People

Ways of Being is an experimental website produced as an outcome of a research project at the University of Oxford, UK, which explored whether online cultural content has been beneficial to mental health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project was conceived as both a natural progression from the emerging body of work linking cultural experiences to improved health and wellbeing, but it sought to specifically target young people who statistically have been the worst affected by the COVID-related mental health crisis but who are also among the lowest users of cultural resources.

Our project, which began in June 2020 and finished in February 2021, is truly inter-disciplinary, harnessing the skills and experience of an NHS Consultant Psychiatrist and expert in evidence-based medicine combined with world leading expertise in internet research and museum interpretation and engagement, along with a leading multimedia agency and the world class collections of the University of Oxford. Grounded in rigorous qualitative and quantitative methodologies, we first surveyed people using the Ashmolean Museum website in lockdown to create a detailed picture of use, current mental health and potential benefits of online culture. The response was unprecedented, with rich data for over 1000 respondents. Results demonstrated that young people (aged 16-24) weren’t using online cultural resources as much as others, could potentially benefit, and – echoing population studies – had a higher prevalence of mental distress. Systematic and sector reviews revealed there was little else out there attempting to optimise online cultural content for mental health in this target group. Another innovative aspect was that we genuinely didn’t know what the research would find, or what we would ‘make’ from scratch as a result.

Once targeted, young people were front and centre of every stage of the process from intensive interviews to actively suggesting, researching , producing and user-testing content for the new tool. Researchers had a clear remit to listen and put aside any preconceptions or traditional curatorial approaches. Young people felt that human stories and perspectives would have the biggest potential impact on supporting their mental health and shifting their thoughts, feeling and behaviours. Many other online cultural tools aimed at promoting good mental health employ mindfulness and introspection. In contrast, Ways of Being prioritises people over objects, the human experience over histories. The collection of freshly scripted human stories, linked to artefacts and artworks in the Ashmolean Museum and beyond, introduce difficult topics like displacement, incarceration, addiction and oppression but also celebrate the positives of diversity, resilience, and self-actualisation, encouraging users to find their own way to engage. Co-production with young people gave us confidence to use non-traditional language, tell stories through a particular lens (not always a cradle to death bio) and create content that resonates rather than just educates. The UX and UI was paramount throughout, with a focus on visual menus, high production values, immersive long-form content, a subtle use of colour (cued from artworks) to communicate mood and tone, and functionality for user comments without feeling gimmicky or creating the judgemental, social-media type environment.

The iterative, sprint development process led to the production of a web resource that we subjected to scientifically rigorous and pragmatic testing. The extraordinary uptake and positive feedback suggests Ways of Being not only works from a UX/enjoyment perspective but also from a cognitive-behavioural perspective to positively impact mental health. As one participant said: “I guess, because it’s not in a therapy setting of someone telling you, ‘this is how you should try and accept yourself and get better’, I think it took away the mental health focus and let me come to those conclusions by myself.” The impact on the project team has been transformative too, giving us new ways of working, new frameworks for content choices, and a new way to engage with one of the sector’s most elusive audience groups.

Ways of Being will remain an online laboratory space for the University of Oxford to conduct future research and content testing with young people, though we plan to make content publicly available in the near future.