By both empowering people to access their own resources and facilitating conversation about mental health across culture, ideology and age, Jimmy Westerheim is reframing struggle as fundamentally human to bridge the isolation that stigma associated with struggle too often brings.
The New Idea
Jimmy is empowering people facing adversity and democratizing conversation about mental health and recovery strategies with a new approach. It neutralizes the role of geographical and cultural context through a shared interview formula, thereby reframing mental health struggles as fundamentally human. Made available widely and for free on multiple online platforms so that it is easy to utilize in everything from schools to therapist offices, the Life Experience Library destigmatizes mental health struggles and increases psychosocial knowledge as a result.
Jimmy’s model, called ‘The Human Aspect’ (THA), digitizes human-to-human support through structured video recordings of in-depth lived experiences of mental health challenges that are available online, for free, to viewers and listeners around the world. Each recording unfolds around three core questions that provide the baseline for three distinct sections: What has been your life’s toughest challenge? How did you handle and move beyond it? And what have you learned? The published interviews are between 30 and 70 minutes and profile both everyday people and influencers to demonstrate just how commonplace mental health struggles are. The 700 in-depth full-length interviews have been viewed more than 1.6 million times, or close to 9 years’ watch time in just the last 2 years (2020-2022). Viewers are invited through listening to other people’s real experiences to take action to address their own challenges in healthier ways, and to build their ‘emotional vocabulary’. The video library is also used to supplement conventional therapy and support, for example, those in a refugee reception center, so that people can see how others from around the world have experienced and dealt with similar challenges. Topics covered include depression, anxiety, addiction, grief, displacement, poverty, refugees, and trauma resulting from conflict.
Jimmy’s new approach reinforces the regularity of mental health challenges and creates a shared, multigenerational and multicultural space free from shame that is readily accessible to viewers when professional care too often is not. He in effect flips the mental health resource pyramid on its head so that those at its bottom – i.e., people facing struggle who have limited access to the tools and resources necessary to manage it effectively – are enabled to share experiences with and learn from each other. Even more importantly, Jimmy’s model also helps the peers of those facing struggles - classmates, friends, and family - to better understand their adversity. In this way, his approach provides a tool to enrich school learning about life, psychology, and mental health.
THA is catalyzing communities, schools, individuals, and those engaging in formal therapy to connect their struggles with others’ and talk more openly about mental health. This exercise of agency builds a new narrative around managing mental health challenges independent of trained professionals who are far too few in number to reach all those in need.
Although mental health challenges are common, conversations about them are not. The issue is still addressed infrequently in school curricula and the workplace. People experiencing struggle too often feel like they are broken or alone. The fact that mental healthcare provision is either expensive or difficult to access due to bureaucracy or limited resources exacerbates this issue. In fact, the World Health Organization reports a yawning gap between the number of trained mental healthcare professionals and the number of people needing their services. On average, countries need 40-60% more trained professionals to meet the estimated demand. Additionally, funding for public health agencies to engage in effective interventions is chronically insufficient. Public health officials do run information campaigns, but their impact is limited. Therefore, those with the most information about how best to manage mental health challenges are fewer in number and difficult to access. This is the default context, so when for example a rise in refugees or a natural catastrophe occurs, the structure tends to collapse. On top of this sits a mental health resource pyramid that leaves far too many who need help with scant information about how best to tend to their mental health. And that has knock-on effects for those at the pyramid’s base in terms of physical wellbeing and productivity.
The Norwegian government, as many others after the pandemic, has pledged to prioritize mental health as much as it prioritizes physical health. Yet stigma around the topic remains, especially for young people who are most at risk. A majority of Norwegians who suffer from mental health challenges are below the age of 40, in fact. Depression and anxiety are the third and fourth most common causes of non-fatal health loss in the country in large part because those experiencing these conditions do not seek treatment. This is in a country that is considered to be among the best to live in. The stigma attached to struggling leads to loneliness and feelings of shame. And those who do seek care find accessing a therapist difficult. Patients spend months in queues unless they can afford to jump them. This gap in provision has been so marked that the OECD has explicitly advised the Norwegian government to address it proactively. Recent studies from universities across Norway indicate that the proportion of students with what can be characterized as high-level mental challenges such as anxiety and/or depression has increased substantially from 2010 to 2021.
Jimmy has employed multiple strategies to democratize conversation about and destigmatize mental health struggles. Firstly, he teams up with social media platforms to ensure global distribution and viewership of Life Experience Library profiles in freely accessed formats. He then uses the feedback gathered to drive future programming decisions. Secondly, Jimmy partners with Oslo schools to engage them in conversations about how to change how young people learn about and understand mental health. And thirdly, he enriches current mental healthcare provision across Norway and other countries such as Poland, Latvia, the UK, and Nepal by sharing Life Experience Library videos with therapists and professionals and developing for them supplemental resources.
To ensure that as many people as possible can access the Life Experience Library, Jimmy and his team create abbreviated versions of each interview to engage as many viewers as possible on social media platforms. These are designed to engage viewers who are suffering in silence to show them they are not alone, that others have managed to deal with similar struggles, and that they can take steps to do the same. They are also designed to increase the general knowledge of common mental health illnesses, conditions, and struggles, and to empower people who want to help someone in their own social circles. Three-minute teasers are posted to THA’s Facebook page, for example, which currently has more than 150,000 followers. Links to the full-length interviews are included in the posts. A partnership with Facebook, which considers the THA model particularly compelling due to its digital platform and no-cost access, has ensured that THA can afford to share its abbreviated clips and Library links to users in nearly every country. In fact, THA videos have been viewed everywhere except the DPRK. Google’s robust platform, including its Maps location service, is ensuring that Jimmy knows where his videos are viewed most frequently, which in turn drives decisions about whom to interview and languages to target in the future.
Much of THA’s impact to date is measured qualitatively rather than in numbers alone. Feedback from users across six continents point to the deep impact THA’s lived experience videos have on how people deal with their own mental health struggles. Every interview is assigned category tags so that a user can conduct a quick search based on their specific need or interest. People from 95 countries appear in the Life Experience Library videos, and while the primary language used is English, interviews are also conducted in Arabic, Somali, Turkish, Tigrinya, Norwegian, Icelandic, Swedish, Danish, French and German.
Jimmy has also learned that many have limited (or no) access to high-speed Internet and are therefore unable to watch Life Experience videos. He is developing audio-only versions and investigating video compression technology so that the most vulnerable or marginalized in targeted emerging economies still have access to the site’s resources. THA has also started a Norwegian-language podcast (https://hverdagspsyken.no/) to ensure that its message about mental health reaches as many people as possible. The podcast hosts both mental healthcare professionals and those with lived experiences. Recent topics include social anxiety, burnout, animals as therapeutic tools, men and mental health, and the effects of being dyslexic. A new episode is released every Monday. The podcast just surpassed more than 650,000 downloads in a country of 5.3 million. THA is now in 2022 re-launching their English-language podcast.
Jimmy is partnering with Oslo schools and universities to ensure that young people have access to real-life illustrations of mental health struggles and how others have overcome them. Classroom use of Life Experience videos is also ensuring that more and more students grow up knowing that mental health challenges are part of what is means to be human, and that they should feel comfortable talking about their own struggles. To accommodate the national curriculum’s new Life Mastery course for all high school students, THA launched a companion digital educational platform in summer 2021, that now is being demonstrated in the classrooms of several schools, and is conducting research to measure the platform’s impact on students. Teachers are using it to find slide decks that THA staff have created to match specific objectives within course topics. This helps to facilitate selection of relevant Life Experience videos. As a result, THA is changing how teachers and students understand and discuss mental health.
Meanwhile, Høyskolen Kristiania in Oslo has embedded THA interviews into curricula for three separate psychology bachelors and online diplomas to bridge the gap between academic teaching and real-life stories. The school and THA are currently conducting qualitative studies on the students’ experience of such innovative ways of learning. And THA is collaborating with professors at Oslo University, Oslo Metropolitan University, and other institutions to embed the Life Experience Library in their curricula. Academic institutions in the UK, Ukraine, Sierra Leone, Nepal, and other countries are also starting to supplement coursework with THA videos.
Therapists in Norway who are looking for tools to help their clients feel less alone and ashamed are using the Life Experience videos. And THA’s reach amongst professionals is growing: in November 2021, more than 3,000 mental health professionals at Schizofrenidagene, Scandinavia’s largest conference for mental health professionals, were introduced to interview excerpts between speakers after organizers asked THA to provide them. Additionally, Jimmy is now, together with several professional partners, testing the impact of using THA resources in therapy in different settings across the country. He is also in discussions with both local and regional government, as well as Norway’s national Health Department and the Norwegian Digital Health Directorate, to determine how best to use the Life Experience Library as a tool for primary and specialized health care workers. The UK’s National Health Service and healthcare providers in Warsaw and Rotterdam are exploring how to integrate THA videos in their online mental healthcare provision, as well.
To complement the impact that THA’s lived experience videos have on viewers, Jimmy and his team have launched Norway’s first Help Page (https://www.hjelpesiden.no/). It lists all the help lines and digital mental health resource links in an accessible, user-friendly way. The team have started initial work identifying resources in countries like Greece, the UK, and Nepal to launch similar pages there, and Jimmy is in conversation with WHO about information on verified help services in other countries.
Jimmy’s next steps include making it possible for users anywhere to download interviews when possible – such as while at an Internet café – and then watch them offline, similar to how people use Netflix and Spotify. He and his team have created a Self-Help user guide for Life Experience Library viewers so that they can more effectively manage their own challenges through strategic use of interview learnings; downloadable user guides for HR managers, psychologists, prison agents, and others; and professional descriptions (PDs) of Life Experience interviews that will serve as the baseline resource for a log-in version of the THA website for mental health professionals that will open up new funding streams for the organization.
Jimmy grew up in a town of around 500 people where, he says, boys were expected to push through challenges rather than draw attention to them. He spent little time talking about how an absent, abusive dad and chronically ill mum affected his self-confidence. He also put a lot of pressure on himself to succeed. But Jimmy was especially good at seeing what his peers were good at and using that knowledge to affirm their skills and build collaboration. During play at school, Jimmy noticed who was good at foraging and who was design-minded. He recalls that he would use that information to build teams to which everyone could contribute. In this way, he built a sense of fairness and belonging. Jimmy soon became a coach at a local summer camp and used these skills to build team spirit so that everyone felt invested.
Despite assuming these leadership roles, Jimmy himself was bullied. But he didn’t respond physically. He thought that struggles like his must just be part of what it means to be human, and that others at school and the camp where he worked had their own struggles. It is why he would come to name his social enterprise ‘The Human Aspect’ – because he thinks that struggle is something all humans experience and should therefore be seen as a reflection of humanity rather than a deficit about which one should be ashamed.
Jimmy’s first role model was his grandmother. He remembers her changemaking as humble but impactful. She brought joy and warmth to people’s lives because she was committed to helping others. It wasn’t until after Jimmy’s grandmother had died that he learned just how much difference she made in the lives of her neighbors and friends. He strives to be just as impactful.
Following a life-changing sporting accident aged 27, Jimmy left his career in shipping and joined a leading international NGO. He was posted to Afghanistan and Greece and soon realized that while colleagues were facing stressful situations, no one was talking about them. Plenty were turning to drink and drugs to unwind, but conversation about challenges was scarce. It was when he was back home in Oslo between assignments that he and a friend started to ask people on sidewalks and in public squares about whether they had faced challenges and, if so, how they had managed them. After he had filmed around 20 of these interviews, Jimmy realized that regardless of the types of people he talked to, everyone had faced struggle. It crystallized what he had wondered about as a child. But what he couldn’t understand was that if facing mental health challenges was so common, why don’t more people talk about their situations or ask each other for help? It was then that he realized that if more people recognized the frequency of mental health challenges, they might talk about them more freely and manage them more effectively. Jimmy then identified a digital company in Oslo who helped him to build the Life Experience Library. From there, THA was born.