• Maryam Omar

What Working in Mental Health Has Taught Me About Design

Of all the many places I thought I would end up in life, working in mental health was not one of them. Mental health was always a topic that folks seemed to speak about, hold events about, and even dedicate their entire lives to. However, I was just like everyone else. Attending several events, reposting mental health reminders on my Instagram story, and trying various meditation apps.

All of it felt like I was doing enough. For myself that is. Little did I know, my entire view on mental health, design, and even my perspective of life would shift in a matter of months.

Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I never wanted to work in mental health, but rather that I never had a clear path to it. And that is just the thing; sometimes you don't need a clear path, a straight road, or even the light at the end of the tunnel to get you to where you need to go. You just need an opportunity.

Coming from a design background, I figured I would be able to simply apply all my academic knowledge to being a great Creative Director. The pieces of the puzzle would eventually fit together and I would get that perfect brochure, that webpage with the perfect amount of white space, that promotional video with the perfect message.

That's just the thing about design; it's more than just attaining perfection. It's about the people on the receiving end of your work. If you take them out of the picture, will your work remain "perfect" or will it crumble from the weight of its empty meaning?

From this, I began to understand the true nature of my work. What worked? What didn't? How can I reach this audience better? What can I do to optimize this post? It was a sea of questions and uncertainty that without doubt, would inevitably lead me to not only to the answers to these questions, but also a deeper understanding of why these questions were even important to ask.

All that time spent staring at my computer screen has taught me to become a better observer, a better listener and overall, a better designer. Here are a few lessons I've picked up in the past year working as a Creative Director for CTN:

  • Assumptions are Dangerous

In 2019, we launched our very first event that focused on addiction. This, being an incredibly broad topic with hundreds of subtopics, I knew that I had to figure out a way to simplify our message into terms that could be comprehended by everyone, no matter their current knowledge about addiction. I knew that social media would be absolutely crucial to push our message to bring awareness.

The decision to make a promotional video was led by the need for a method that would stick. Something people could remember, could visualize. Undoubtedly, making the script, picking the right faces and the right tone wasn't easy, but it was necessary. I understood the fact that individuals at their most vulnerable point in their lives would be watching this video.

I couldn't assume that they were going to just relate to the video, I wanted them to show up to our event and partake in the awareness.

Vulnerable topics require clarity. Vulnerable individuals however, require compassion. I wanted to make sure that they were not left out of this conversation. I wanted them to have a voice.

It's basic human nature to assume things about life. It's just the way we are. However, bringing that assumption into mental health can be very detrimental to those you serve. You can't go in assuming everyone knows what you know. This isn't a one size fit all approach. The wide scope of mental health can't be categorized into black and white. There are grey areas in between.

  • Keeping the "Health" in Mental Health

Any designer will tell you how easy it is to get lost in the process. Finally getting the perfect color palette or a clean animation is a satisfaction that is almost too difficult to explain. We take pride in the work we do because we recognize and appreciate the entire process. But how does the importance of this change when it comes to designing for mental health? Well, I learned that the answer to this was right in front of me all along.

For one, I understood that I am only a mental health advocate, not a professional. I don't have all the answers and frankly, no one does. However, that doesn't mean that I don't have an obligation. I have the responsibility to ensure that our social presence is managed in a way that is effective and that preserves our integrity of this organization. So how do I do that?

How do I uphold our social obligations while simultaneously getting our message across? The answer: Focus on the health.

Designing for mental health requires you to go beyond surface level. It needs depth, tough questions and effective solutions; with the health of the user being at the fore front of it all. Many people make the common mistake of focusing on the numbers and then scratch their heads when few show up to their next event. You have to make sure your audience knows you care about their health.

People want to feel in control of their health. They want to feel empowered and inspired by the work an organization is doing. And to accomplish that from a design standpoint, you have to shift your attention to what is important; their health.

What I've learned in the past year is only a percentage of what I have yet to learn. That is the beauty of being a part of CTN. It allows me to be a life long learner. I learn how to be a better designer by connecting directly with my users. I've spoken to them, listened to their stories, their successes and their failures.

It is incredibly surreal to witness the true impact of your work. Helping someone by being a resource or even a listening ear might sound simple, but the effect that your help has in their lives can be unimaginable. That person that seeks help can easily be your mother, your sister, your nephew, that nice barista at Starbucks, or even you.

There is a person behind every mental health issue. And that person, is who I am always happy to design for.