Jimmy Westerheim

Ashoka Fellow
Jimmy Westerheim 2
Fellow since 2021
This description of Jimmy Westerheim's work was prepared when Jimmy Westerheim was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2021 .

Introduction

By 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 struggles and mental health too often brings.

The New Idea

Jimmy is democratizing conversation about mental health with a new approach that, by neutralizing the role of geographical and cultural context through a shared interview formula, reframes mental health struggles as fundamentally human. Made available widely through The Life Experience Library that today is available on multiple online platforms and at schools and therapist offices, his work destigmatizes mental health struggles and raises the psychosocial knowledge base of society as a whole.

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. The interviews are available online, for free, to viewers and listeners around the world. Each recording unfolds around three sections and key questions:

1. What has been your life’s toughest challenge?
2. How did you handle and move beyond it?
3. What have you learned?

The interviews last from 20 to 60 minutes and profile both everyday people and influencers to demonstrate just how commonplace mental health struggles are. Some 500 in-depth interviews have been viewed more than 700,000 times. Viewers are invited to take action to address their own challenges in healthier ways. Topics covered include depression, anxiety, addiction, grief, identity, displacement, poverty, and trauma resulting from conflict. Each interview is assigned category tags so that a user can conduct a quick search based on their specific need or interest. People from 90 countries have shared their experiences in Library videos, and while the primary language used is English, interviews are also conducted in Arabic, Somali, Turkish, Tigrinya, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and German.

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 learn from others. At the same time ordinary people who have found a way to deal with their challenge can share their life experience with those in need of it, making it a sustainable circular system. Jimmy’s model provides a new tool to enrich school learning about psychology and mental health, as well, and supplements conventional therapy by enabling clients to see how others from around the world have experienced and dealt with similar challenges. 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. Jimmy believes that if he can empower the many, then lived experiences can become the missing link of the mental health workforce and that by digitizing it, it can reach across the globe.

The Problem

Although mental health challenges are common, conversations about them are not. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 1.2 billion people struggle with mental health challenges and 50% of us will face a mental health struggle during our lifetimes. Still, the issue is 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, WHO 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. Mental health is estimated to be about 0.5% of the global health budget. Public health officials do run information campaigns, but their impact is often limited. Therefore, those with the most information about how best to manage mental health challenges are fewer in number and difficult to access. They sit atop 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. Even the rise of the digital information age seems not to have managed to stop the rise in mental health challenges, especially among the young generation. And that has knock-on effects for those at the pyramid’s base in terms of physical wellbeing and productivity – a gap that increases the societal cost, but also causes a massive human loss in terms of the millions of people suffering globally. Knowing that mental health challenges like loneliness, bullying, poor self-image, neglect and abuse only develop into a long-lasting mental health illness if left untreated, this problem needs a new approach.

The Norwegian government 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. The stigma attached to such struggles 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 (SHoT undersøkelsen) indicate that roughly 29% of students struggle heavily with mental health issues (self-reported). More alarming is the fact that this number has risen from 16% to 29 % in just eight years.

The Strategy

Jimmy has employed multiple strategies to democratize conversation about and destigmatize mental health struggles. Firstly, he bypassed traditional product development theories and launched his product after only three months. Secondly, he combined the power of social media with the latest knowledge of how to get engagement in the battle with influencers, “fake news” and trends. Once he had proven his content to be competitive, he teamed up with social media platforms to ensure global distribution and viewership of Life Experience Library profiles in freely accessed formats. He uses feedback gathered from a live audience globally to drive future programming decisions. Once fine-tuned, Jimmy partners with Oslo schools to change how young people learn about and understand mental health. And thirdly, he enriches current mental healthcare provision across Norway and other countries by sharing the Life Experience Library and guides on how to use it efficiently with therapists so that patients can find inspiration and insights from real life experiences.

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. Three-minute teasers are posted to THA’s Facebook page, which currently has close to 130,000 followers. Links to the full-length interviews are included in the posts. They do the same customization for Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms to reach people where they are. A partnership with Facebook, which considers the THA model particularly compelling due to its digital platform and no-cost access, has given THA the opportunity to share its abbreviated clips and Library links to users in every country with open Internet. In fact, THA videos have been viewed everywhere except Cuba and the DPRK. Vimeo and Google’s robust platforms, including its location service, are ensuring that Jimmy knows where his videos are viewed most frequently, which in turn impacts decisions about whom to interview and languages to target in the future.

Since the start, THA’s videos have had more than 60,000,000 views on Facebook’s platforms, that again has resulted in more than 700,000 views of the full interviews between 20-60 minutes long. Much of THA’s impact to date is measured qualitatively rather than in numbers alone, because that’s what matters to and drives Jimmy and his team. 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. Jimmy has seen that many have limited (or no) access to high-speed Internet and are therefore unable to easily watch Life Experience videos. He is developing audio-only versions so that the most vulnerable or marginalized in targeted emerging economies still have access to the site’s resources. This is one of the key goals of 2021 for Jimmy and his team.

THA has also started two podcasts, one for THA in English and a Norwegian-language podcast (https://hverdagspsyken.no/), to ensure that its message about the frequency of mental health struggles reaches as many people as possible. The Norwegian podcast especially has established itself as one of the most listened to podcasts in the country. Both mental healthcare professionals and those with lived experiences participate. Recent topics include social anxiety and the effects of being dyslexic. A new episode is released every Monday, and weekly downloads number in the thousands.

Jimmy is also 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 it means to be human, and that they should feel comfortable talking about their own struggles. For example, Nydalen VGS - a secondary school (16-19) in Oslo - has used the Library to encourage more than 400 students to talk more openly about mental health challenges. THA is currently teaming up with Oslo municipality to get feedback from local schools on new user guides for teachers on how to utilize the Life Experience Library for educational purposes in class. Høyskolen Kristiania has embedded chosen THA interviews into their curricula for its “Operational psychology” degree and two online courses. Collaboration talks are ongoing with Oslo University, Oslo Metropolitan University, and Bjørknes Høyskole to embed the Life Experience Library in tertiary institutions’ curricula. THA is looking for financial support to help them scale this aspect of Jimmy’s work to schools in Denmark, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Latvia, Sweden, Ukraine and the UK.

Therapists in Norway are using the Life Experience videos as supplemental tools to help their clients in their healing journey. THA are in talks with the Norwegian government’s Health Department and the Norwegian Digital Health Directorate to discuss how to best use the Life Experience Library as a tool for primary and specialized healthcare workers. Jimmy and his team are currently developing users guides for several positions in the health care system to speed up this process. Jimmy is also developing a partnership with the UK’s National Health Service to integrate the videos in its online mental healthcare provision. And, academic institutions in other countries such as the UK and Ukraine are starting to supplement coursework with THA videos.

Jimmy’s next steps include making it possible to watch interviews offline, so that users anywhere can download interviews when possible – such as at an Internet café – and then watch them. His team has also started to create downloadable user guides for ordinary viewers to more effectively manage their own challenges. And, Jimmy is working on a digital help function that will show where professional help can be found locally, if needed.

Jimmy discovered that mental health challenges like loneliness, bullying, poor self-image, neglect and abuse, if handled early, rarely develop into long-lasting mental health illnesses. That is why he focuses on increasing psychosocial knowledge and decreasing stigma, to empower people to help themselves by using their social network, low threshold services, and digital resources – and by seeking help early. That’s because he believes that if we manage to do this collectively as a society, we have found a way to utilize the experiences of the many to help those in need. If we succeed with this, we ensure that most people tackle their challenges early, and that the ones facing mental health illnesses will have access to the help that has since been freed up. This solves the problem through a combination of technology, innovative use of lived experiences, streamlining professionals and empowering ordinary people to take charge of their own lives across the globe.

The Person

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, alcoholic dad, heavy bullying, and a chronically ill mum affected his self-confidence and mental health. He also put a lot of pressure on himself to succeed. But Jimmy was especially good at seeing other people, but also 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 an activity manager at a local summer camp and used these skills to build team spirit so that everyone felt invested. He continued to use these skills as an engaged youth coach for his younger peers in both football and basketball.

Despite assuming these leadership roles, Jimmy himself was bullied. But he learned to avoid responding 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. He feels the knowledge from our challenges in life is our human aspect.

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 saw people in a unique way, and 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 went as a field worker 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, work and drugs to unwind, but conversations about challenges were scarce. It was when he was back home in Oslo between assignments that he wanted to test his idea. He brought along a friend and started interviewing 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 struggles. 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.