‘Shake it off’: Four ways Taylor Swift supports young people’s mental health

Academic events don’t usually need to keep their location secret, but the sheer number and fervour of Taylor Swift fans meant organisers for this month’s ‘Swiftposium’ felt it was a precaution worth taking. Such is the passion, such is the connection that fans feel to Swift – who now has a net worth of $1.1 billion – that it has prompted a serious research gaze on her impact, not least for young people’s mental health.

It isn’t clear exactly how robust the evidence is, as much is self-reported, but it isn’t difficult to find a fan (or a parent or a psychologist for that matter) who agrees that she has a welcome positive influence at a time when young people are under enormous pressure. A clear story emerges from the fans themselves – Swift helps them feel stronger and has a positive effect on their mental health (though there are also questions about how Swift proactively uses her power to mobilise these fans).

The ABS’ National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing shows that the mental health of young Australians has declined dramatically over the past 20 years, with young women more likely to be affected. Almost two in five Australians aged 16-24 have had a 12-month mental disorder, with anxiety the most common.

There’s no argument that high quality mental health care backed by evidence and delivered by professionals is always best. However, our experience in co-designing mental health support frameworks with young people at the Centre for Social Impact illustrates how much Taylor Swift resonates with this cohort’s needs. Here are four reasons why the Queen of Pop is rocking our headspace.

1. Smashing stigma

Research shows that approximately half of the young people who experience mental distress will not seek help because of stigma or a lack of understanding from adults, such as school staff and sometimes even health service providers.

Reducing this stigma isn’t easy for governments, teachers or parents to pull off. You really need popstar power to cut through the deep fears that prevent our youth from speaking up about mental health.

Taylor Swift has actively promoted mental health, but not in a ‘celebrity meets cause’ kind of way. Her own personal disclosures and song lyrics directly reference struggles with several of the pointy-end issues that young people are prone to, such as eating disorders, body image issues and sexual harassment, giving her credibility.

2. A recovery orientation

A recovery-oriented approach to mental health care builds on individual strengths, emphasising hope, social inclusion, goal-setting and self-management. This holistic approach is important especially for mental health conditions in young people which often emerge at the same time as difficult life transitions, and when young people do not necessarily want or need a label.

Taylor Swift is very clear that setbacks are moments of growth, not the end of days. Emerging research by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests that too often people try to help young people with their mental struggles through an over-emphasis on fixing problems and removing risks. But enabling young people to experience adversities (such as loneliness or rejection) in a supportive environment is a developmental task that actually facilitates positive mental health .

Taylor Swift is not only interested in painful, dark times; her songs and narratives speak to the path out of them. The result is a public persona that conveys a mix of vulnerability and strength. She normalises life adversities and inner demons while also being absolutely OK and rising again for the next chapter (or era).

3. Dealing with online culture

We are in the midst of a sweeping cultural upheaval, with huge chunks of our lives now mediated through interactive technology. Research indicates this is contributing significantly to young people’s poor mental health.

In recent years ‘young people attending high performing schools’ has emerged as a new cohort at-risk of mental health conditions . This is the first time that relatively privileged young people have been included in the top five at-risk cohorts. Economically advantaged young people may have better access to social media and technology use, increasing their vulnerability to mental health risks.

Online environments are chaotic and unregulated, so a safe space for sharing can quickly become a hyper-critical space where comments or images are exploited or weaponised. Neither Taylor Swift nor the mental health system can fully protect young people from these experiences, but young people do need ‘way finders’ and supports for the specific negative experiences and behaviours that occur online. ‘The adults’ do not always know what it is like to come of age in these conditions.

Taylor Swift on the other hand is the big sister figure who understands the 24/7 pressure to be insta-worthy, the harms of online harassment, being trolled aggressively, online bullying and social alienation through technology use. She herself has felt the slap of online haters, and once again, has overcome dark times (noting that she is not adverse to strategically using her enormous fan base and their online presence to advance her business interests ). Taylor Swift also role models how to promote positive online communities – and anything toxic of course just requires shaking it off and moving on.

4. A trusted and relatable role model

While co-designing mental health supports with young people, we heard that many young people are not comfortable with the idea of clinical intervention, or may have had bad experiences in the past. At the Centre for Social Impact UWA, we consulted with youth representatives about what attractive, effective alternative supports might look like.

Some young people say they definitely do not want specialists and experts coming into their lives with solutions. What they are looking for are trusted role models, who are not solely focused on mental health, but who can relate to them in different ways.

They need safe, kind adults (not parents or teachers) to share experiences like playing sport, video games, or art, and who are also highly literate in mental health concerns, non-judgemental and empathetic, able to draw on their own experiences of tough times.

That does sound like everything Taylor Swift likely represents, at least in the fan-base imagination.

The enormous power of Swift is evident in the fan mania ramping up ahead of her coming Australian tour, her economic effect through concerts and album sales, and the media frenzy which even runs to theories on how her choice of boyfriend and actions at football games is a soft power attempt to bring more fans over to her political thinking.

In the meantime, anxiety and distress rates for young people continue to rise even as the mental health of other cohorts stabilise. Persistently high levels of distress in young people suggest that our current system is not working effectively to address their needs.

If the youth mental health crisis is a problem in search of an answer, then maybe taking a page out of the Taylor Swift songbook can’t hurt at all.

Image credit: Eva Rinaldi , CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


This opinion piece is written by Lisette Kaleveld, a social researcher at the Centre for Social Impact UWA and originally published in The West Australian.

Lisette led the evaluation of the Assisting Communities through Direct Connection Project (by Community Mental Health Australia), believed to be the largest mental health study of its kind in the world, in which more than 37,000 homes across Australia were doorknocked to speak about mental health.

She will present at the Swiftposium, speaking on what Taylor Swift's resonance with young women tells us about contemporary cultural life.