In issue number 3,495 of the iconic Beano, a new character is introduced with the aim of tackling one of the biggest issues affecting children and young people of the time; that topic is mental health.
It’s a bold move for the weekly comic book and a rather meaty topic to be presenting its core audience of eight to 14 years olds. But then again, for the length of its 80 year history, the Beano has always strived to present each generation of readers with a reflection of the time’s social attitudes and trends.
The inescapable truth is that today’s children are growing up amid social pressures that have led to some pretty staggering statistics regarding mental health issues among younger audiences.
The Beano issue in question is actually a David Walliams guest-edited 80th anniversary special of the now iconic weekly children’s comic. Dealing with topical issues ranging from General Elections to celebrity, it is also one that is so often perceived as a zeitgeist of British culture.
Mandi and her Mobile is the name of the comic strip, and in it, the title character makes her debut as she is handed her first mobile phone by her mother. Mandi excitedly messages her friends from her new device and the story follows the character’s thought process as she awaits to hear from that one friend who hasn’t texted her back.
Over the course of this 11-frame comic strip Mandi portrays the social and mental anxiety of self-doubt so commonly associated to such a scenario - and not only by young people - until her worry is finally dissipated by the end of the strip when she learns that her school friend’s phone has simply run out of battery.
Pair this comic strip and its character with the recent slate of figures from Mental Health that suggest that storylines like Mandi’s are among the contributing reasons that mental health issues are affecting almost one in four children in the UK, or that more than a fifth of 14 year old girls in the UK have self harmed owing to social pressures, and it becomes all the more poignant.
Kids’ mental health has become a big issue in the UK. Further statistics suggest that one in ten children have a diagnosable mental health disorder; that’s roughly three children in every classroom. On top of that, almost one in four children and young people show some evidence of mental ill health, including anxiety and depression.
On top of this still, it has been suggested that half of adult mental health problems are established in children before they reach 14 years old. So, it’s clear that there is a big conversation to be had. TV and radio presenter Anna Williamson, known widely among the toy trade for hosting Toy Fair TV at London’s Olympia each year, is also an active ambassador for the charities Mind, Childline and The Princes Trust. She has been for well over a decade now, making the challenge of destigmatising attitudes towards mental health and wellness a personal crusade of hers.
“I think there is a general lack of awareness of how important it is to educate everybody… children, adults, grandparents…that we all have mental health and it is not a dirty word,” Williamson tells ToyNews. “It is super important that we take care of ourselves mentally and physically at all times. Historically, mental health has always been seen as something rather shameful and misunderstood. We need to recognise that it is anything but.”
In that case, this is something that Beano appears to be doing particularly well, leveling the conversation at young people through a medium they are familiar with and a character and storyline they can relate to.
Mandi and her Mobile is the result of a partnership between the Beano and YoungMinds, the UK charity dedicated to bringing conversation around the topic of mental health into the open. The pairing formed as a means of communicating with primary school children on the themes of digital resilience, mental health problems and emotional literacy.
“YoungMinds wanted help in talking directly to kids about their own mental health in a way that is genuinely interesting and engaging,” explains Angeles Blanco, director of UK licensing at Beano Studios.
“This appealed to us as our expertise lies in creating content which children love and have a long history of tackling difficult issues head on for children.”
It’s a line that Beano has always taken, without any desire to take credit for it. It is simply the company’s ethos of delivering what it believes it owes its audience.
“We feel brands and companies such as ours, who work with children, have a responsibility to do their bit to help - and we will do that with Beano spirit and positivity,” continues Blanco. “There’s something in the DNA of the Beano characters, they’re joyously and happily imperfect, and we feel strongly that all kids should really embrace that feeling.”
It’s a sentiment that mirrors those of Anna Williamson almost to the letter.
Personal experience of generalised anxiety disorder, anxiety, depression and panic disorder for over ten years of her life, has led Williamson to where she is today. And where that is, is on a very similar mission, to normalise the conversation around mental health, and recognising the role that children’s entertainment has to play in this endeavor.
“Play is a hugely important tool in helping to teach age-appropriate topics, and mental health falls into this,” she explains. “It’s much more fun and easy to understand and put into everyday scenarios when we adopt a play strategy around it.”
Williamson is referring to a project she has recently attached her name to, a Kickstarter project to develop, produce and launch to retail a new tabletop card game for children that deals with the topic of mental health. The project is called Book of Beasties and is one created by a team that goes by the name of Cutrist Comics. The game itself has been developed with the aid of teachers and is endorsed by numerous psychologists. It sees players team up with characters Oscar, Abigail and Mimic as they make use of a series of strange contraptions to help a world of bizarre creatures.
But the game also acts as an aid to help teachers, parents and guardians talk with children about mental health by offering a platform to promote the discussion of issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as to practice the skills and exercises that could be supportive.
“A simple conversation about mental health can go a long way to empowering a young person to find the courage to openly discuss their emotions and concerns,” Phil Tottman, co-creator and Book of Beasties and co-founder of Cutrist Comics, tells ToyNews.
“Play really assists in the introduction of any serious subject; especially between a parent and child. Mum and Dad aren’t always the first people you choose to talk with about something deeply personal when you’re younger, or throughout life for that matter.
“However, if you weave these subjects into a tasteful game, or other types of enjoyable platforms, then you’re going to be more likely to encourage openness.”
The Book of Beasties does this in its gameplay. Instead of forcing a discussion, it puts an emotion or action into a visual context with the aim of making it far less daunting for the child to talk about it.
Already, it is drawing parallels with the Beano’s efforts through its storytelling.
“What the Beano has done is something amazing,” continues Tottman, “and that is simply dedicate a small part of its platform to the topic. It shows that you don’t have to redesign a whole brand or reinvent the wheel to broach such subjects, just add a little extra on to something.”
Neither do you have to ‘shove the message down the throats of your audience,’ echoes Williamson’s own take on the topic of bringing discussion into play.
“When the Book of Beasties was first introduced, it took me about one second to be a fan,” she explains. “The notion of a card game with fantastic graphics and characters that everybody can completely adopt as their own to represent their feelings, it felt like the perfect tool to open up the discussion of mental health within a children and school environment.
“Essentially, everything we want to do is about normalising the topic. I think we need to remember that play is play. We don’t always have to keep crowbarring or ramming some sort of message home with products, but when the appropriate product and message comes about, I think it is a really important thing to be clever with and weave into merchandise and literature.”
An example of one brand that has done this very well is the US born, yet globally revered Sesame Street, and its recent initiative Sesame Street Communities, a concept that was conceived to help tackle the issue of the rising number of American children suffering from trauma. The idea is to employ Sesame Street’s intrinsic alignment with childhood in communities across the US in order to help children, families and parents deal with a range of topics, from hygiene and mental health to bereavement or poverty.
“When Sesame Street first launched, it launched with the idea that we do not just solely do programming, but our founder really strongly believed that we had to go into communities as well and show how to use this educational platform,” Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of community and family engagement at Sesame Workshop, tells ToyNews.
“That was nearly 60 years ago and that history has continued.”
It’s unmistakably part of the Sesame Workshop and Sesame Street DNA. Ask a member of any generation of the last 60 years and the programme, its characters and its message is often one that narrates a childhood.
“The power that these wonderful muppets have to connect both with children and grownups alike on easy topics about brushing your teeth, but also on hard topics like dealing with grief or the death of a parent, that allows us to connect with organisations, but also with parents and young children.”
Through Sesame Street Communities, the not-for-profit organisation offers a central hub of online reference material around all manner of topics, among them is children’s mental health, anxiety and depression. The company is also looking to extend its outreach programme across the US, and eventually the world, by reaching out to communities and caregivers within them, be they doctors, teachers, services aligned with children’s wellbeing, and offer them the tools to engage with children on numerous topics.
The initiative - a relatively new launch for the company - is currently active in eight communities in the US. Its aim is to be across 35 communities in the next five years.
“This is just so aligned with our mission which is in order for children to have resiliency and well-being, you need to look at all areas of a child’s development, from cognitive to health, physical and emotional health,” says Betancourt.
“Around the world, children are facing so many challenges and trauma that we need to address that.”
Back with the Beano, and it’s clear that the studio behind this iconic piece of British
literature is working towards a similar vision as Blanco details the extent of its partnership with Young Minds.
“We have worked with our panel of Trendspotters, our group of nine to 12 year olds who share the latest crazes, trends and opinions from the playground, to guide us in the creation of content for Beano.com, which promotes YoungMinds’ messaging in Beano’s mischievous way. We have used our insight into what kids love and engage with to create videos to support Young Minds campaigns such as Rubber Chicken’s First Day and Rant Attack - Back to School.
These support YoungMinds’ Find Your Feet campaign which highlights potentially difficult transition times, such as moving up to secondary school.”
Blanco concludes by telling ToyNews that “this is a long-term partnership with YoungMinds,” and that there will “definitely be further content and promotion.”
It all begs the question, is this just the beginning of a movement of wellness and mental health focused projects in the children’s entertainment and play space?
“I think we are going to continue to see therapy-based, mental health type products emerging into the toy market, it just seems such an obvious space to fill,” suggests Williamson.
“We are talking about mental and emotional well-being more than ever, and with children experiencing more and more issues and challenges, the more we can reach them through the ways they communicate, i.e. play, the more we can do to keep that conversation and support going.”
Cutrist Comics’ Tottman, concludes: “I sincerely hope this is just the start. More needs to be done in the mental health awareness space for young people. There are resources and programmes out there for schools and children, but many of them are technical, wordy and overly detailed.
“I hope to see more of these conversations open up through toys, games, cartoons, entertainment, because that is how you will engage that younger audience far better than sitting them down and talking at them.”