Personal trainer and content creator Ben Ogden, 24, is trying to get people to talk about their mental health. He’s doing it in an unconventional way: standing in crowded train stations across the UK, holding up cardboard signs such as, “If you’re struggling with your mental health, let’s talk”. The missing apostrophe is there to attract the attention of passersby.
“I really believe we need to make mental health part of the normal conversation,” Ben said in his opening remarks at the inaugural meeting of the Pan-European Mental Health Alliance, “especially around young people, and post-pandemic good.”
Ben has been holding signs at train stations in Leeds and other UK cities since October 2021. The content of the sign has changed, from disclosing his own struggles with depression to a more general invitation, as above. The idea is to encourage people to protect their mental health by allowing them to approach him to talk on their own terms, taking time out of their busy schedules.
“That’s why I do it at the train station,” he said. “A quick conversation we might have at a train station could have a huge impact on their day.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 19-year-olds
Mental health, especially among youth, is a growing concern across the WHO European Region. According to the European Mental Health Organization, more than 9 million young people in the region report poor mental health, and even before the pandemic, suicide was the second leading cause of death for 10- to 19-year-olds.
“I’ve been struggling with my mental health,” Ben said. “But it was really confinement, going through some personal experiences in my life that I think sparked my own mental health.”
The WHO/Europe Technical Advisory Group on the Mental Health Impact of COVID-19 reports that the mental health of youth has deteriorated due to the pandemic. Reasons include social isolation, general anxiety about the pandemic and uncertainty at work or school. While talking about mental health issues can be helpful, young people can have a hard time speaking out because of ingrained stigma.
Ben is also reluctant to share his feelings with family and friends. “I don’t want to put pressure on them,” he said. The idea for these signs came about when he took the time to ask a good friend about his mental health.
“We all suffer from mental health issues,” Ben said. “I just asked him, ‘Are you really okay?’ We ended up chatting for hours about our own mental health. Together, and none of us know we’re all struggling, so what’s going on with someone who might see friends once a week?”
spark a conversation
These signs are ideas about how to have a conversation. Their first time was a nerve-wracking experience. “We went to Leeds at 10:00am and didn’t finish filming until 3:30. I think we spent the whole day thinking, walking around, procrastinating, procrastinating,” he recalls. “And then I thought, ‘You know what, it’s not about me, it’s about other people.'”
“If you watch the original video, you’ll see that I was freaked out. I felt very self-conscious,” he added.
Ben’s bravery has paid off – his following has grown rapidly since the first video. Between 70,000 and 100,000 people watch his livestream, which usually lasts about an hour, and the video garners more than a million “likes”. His followers have also set up a Discord server for mental health conversations outside of livestreams, with about 10 different rooms to encourage one-on-one conversations about mental health.
Ben’s efforts join calls for more investment in mental health, especially teens. The demand is so great that 2022 is being considered the European Year of Youth. For the past 3 years, Mental Health Europe has organised a week-long event in May called European Mental Health Week to draw attention to mental health issues and inspire action by policymakers and the public.
This year, this week’s theme is “Speaking Up for Mental Health,” which aims to highlight adolescent mental health issues. The campaign revealed to EU policymakers a set of policy requirements to address gaps in the current mental health system, especially for young people.
Likewise, WHO/Europe has been drawing attention to youth mental health by launching a new programme at the Athens Office for Quality of Care that focuses on the quality of mental health care for children and adolescents. Supporting young people’s mental health is also part of the work package of the Pan-European Mental Health Alliance, which Ben contributed to during a visit to Copenhagen, Denmark, for the alliance’s first meeting.
For Ben, the question for governments and other organizations is how to do what he does on a larger scale. “I don’t know how — from school to university, from university to workplace, I feel like there needs to be something to accompany you along the way, like a career.”
He plans to continue his signs. He even held up a sign in front of Copenhagen City Hall after the league meeting – his first time outside the UK.
Join the conversation on social media. Ben can be found on TikTok as @itsbenogden and on Instagram as @iambenogden.