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Saved by social: supporting young people with mental health challenges using apps

By Rita Mogaji, Digital Marketing Manager at Health Innovation Network

I love social media. I love everything about it. I love that you can learn most things, connect with likeminded people, or even better, very different people from all over the globe. In that one click a whole world of interests, breaking news and funny memes is opened up to you. As Digital Marketing Manager of Health Innovation Network, I get a kick out of being able to share the latest digital innovations with healthcare professionals, connect with GPs on how they can bring Atrial Fibrillation (AF) checks to their clinics and – of course – stay up to date with the latest gifs, all through the power of social media.

But I appreciate that’s not everyone’s experience of the cyber world. And, while I am a lover of the online world, I am not ignorant to the darker side, where bullies troll and perfection is presented as a casual everyday occurrence. This is particularly saddening in the way that it is potentially affecting young people’s mental health.

In February, HIN hosted a Maximising Digital in Mental Health event, specifically aimed at discussing how we can maximise digital  opportunities in mental health for 0-25 year olds. At the event, leading children’s mental health expert and Professor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Developmental science and Head of the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London (UCL), Professor Peter Fonagy OBE, brought the problem to life in the statistics he presented. According to the first national review of children and young people’s mental health, the number of children and young people referred for mental health treatment has risen by two-thirds since 2012, university students reporting a mental health problem has risen five-fold.

The same report, titled “Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s mental health”, published in 2018, found that despite there being a disappointing amount of robust research in this area, there was evidence of the potential negative impacts of social media, ranging from causing detrimental effects on sleep patterns and body image, through to cyberbullying, grooming and ‘sexting’. In these instances, social media was described as a facilitator to the risk, rather than the general root cause.

What if instead of carrying around trolls and bullies and anxieties in their pockets, young people were carrying around peer support and mental health professionals.

Harnessing the power of sharing

If social media is a facilitator to the risks, surely, it could also be a facilitator to a solution? While social media’s potential to be destructive and unkind cannot be denied, it also provides direct access to young people who otherwise are not accessing the professional help they need.

Research recently published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that one in four children and young people referred to mental health services in England last year were not accepted for treatment, and those who are accepted have to wait an average of two months to begin treatment. What if we harnessed the power of social sharing? What if instead of carrying around trolls and bullies and anxieties in their pockets, young people were carrying around helpful advice through peer support and  mental health professionals. The same touch of a button that could see them post their latest adventure, is the same single-click with which they can access potentially life-saving help.

Facebook asks us what’s on our mind, LinkedIn asks us if we want to connect. What if we created bespoke social networks that used these mechanisms and approaches to help young people feel comfortable opening up to professionals who could help them? What if the technology for this already exists?

BESTIE, an app created by a team of young people, NHS professionals from Worcestershire Health and Care Trust and digital innovators, combines digital media, instant messaging, built-in games and supportive help and information within a safe, anonymous, online platform. Kooth is a digital tool that provides easy access to an online community of peers and a team of experienced counsellors, which more than 1,500 children and young people across England log in to everyday.  Calm Harm is a multiple award-winning app to help young people manage their urge to self-harm, which has been downloaded 1.13 million times worldwide and reports a 93 per cent reduction in self harm behaviour after each use.

The effectiveness of these innovations? They have taken the end user’s behaviours and preferences into account.

Time to listen

Time to Change, is actively campaigning to bring mental health to the public consciousness with its movement to get more discussions about our mental wellbeing out in the open – and that’s great. listening to the discussion at our digital mental health event it struck me that for young people it’s not only time to talk; it’s time for us to listen. Young people want to talk about their problems, we need to give them opportunities for exchanges they feel comfortable with.

Young people want anonymity. An irony that I’m sure isn’t wasted on anyone is young people’s desire for anonymity when it comes to mental health. When co-creating the Chat Health app with young people, the ability to be anonymous and create avatars was a much requested functionality. The same people who crave sharing their every dinner, dance move or new outfit, may want to remain faceless when talking about their personal challenges.

Young people want to text. During the Maximising Digital in Mental Health event we heard from different people about how young people felt that the telephone was too personal and they didn’t always feel comfortable talking to an ‘adult’ about the challenges they might be facing. But texting made it easier to talk and was more aligned with how they usually used their smartphones.

Young people want to be involved. Most of us are not digital natives, now most commonly determined by you having owned a smartphone from the age of 12. But most young people growing up are. The same way their feedback is adapted in every other app they interact with to personalise it to their specific preferences; they want co-design and to know they have helped shape and inform the end product.

Closing the gap

Deprivation heightens a young person’s propensity to experience mental health challenges. Dr Fonagy described how you can almost perfectly follow the underground line from east to west across south London, mapping the deteriorating outcomes and quality of care that children receive based on where they are from. On the face of it, investing in digital may serve to only increase this socio-economic divide. However, in the young person’s category access to technology is possibly less of  a concern with 96 per cent of 16-25 year olds own a smartphone, with tablet access expected to reach similar ownership in the next few years.

Younger generations will continue to become more digitally aware and savvy, and as a result, more susceptible to the negative sides of such digital maturity, and at an even younger age. So instead of all of our efforts going into stopping the rise of social media or preventing young people’s access, I believe we should  harness the power of social media to offer them support, help and – most importantly – the tools to manage their own mental wellbeing.

Young people want to talk about their problems, we need to give them opportunities for exchanges they feel comfortable with.

Check out the full list of digital tools presented at our Maximising Digital opportunities in mental health 0-25 years event, which also included tools to support new parents.

BESTIE is a mobile application that aims to help reduce the mental health risks of social media to children and young people. It combines digital media, instant messaging, built-in games and supportive help and information, all within an anonymous, safe online platform.

Baby Buddy is an award-winning, quality-assured pregnancy and parenting app, providing timely, relevant and personalised, bite-sized daily information for parents and families. The app signposts people to local support help lines and ensures new parents are confident and equipped to make decisions about their child and themselves during pregnancy and early parenthood.

BfB Labs’ mission is to develop and deliver highly engaging, clinically evidenced and cost-effective digital interventions that provide timely and effective support to young people so they can improve and sustain their mental health. BfB Labs evidence-based digital treatment interventions can be delivered at all points in the care pathway: before, during and after clinician-led support.

Calm Harm is a multiple award-winning app to help young people manage their urge to self-harm using ideas from evidence-based Dialectic Behaviour Therapy (DBT). The app has been downloaded 1.13 million times worldwide with a reported 93 per cent rate in the reduction of self-harm behaviour after each use.

ChatHealth is a multi-award-winning, risk-managed messaging helpline platform, providing a way for service users to easily and anonymously get in touch with a healthcare professional. Backed by NHS England’s Innovation Accelerator, evaluated by NICE and NHS Digital, ChatHealth is used by half of public health school nursing teams in England.

The free-to-download distrACT app by Expert Self Care allows NHS and other providers to give people easy, quick and discreet access to information around self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Created by a team of experts in self-harm and suicide prevention, doctors, NHS organisations and charities, the app can be customised for local areas that want to signpost local services and support all in one place.

Dr Julian is an innovative mental healthcare platform that increases accessibility of mental healthcare. It connects patients almost immediately to mental healthcare therapists by secure video/audio/text appointments using a calendar appointment booking system, which matches a patient to the correct therapist using filters such as language, issue and therapy type.

QbTest is a continuous performance test (CPT) that simultaneously measures the core indicators of ADHD: attention, impulsivity and motor activity. Evaluation of the QbTest showed pathway efficiencies, quicker diagnosis, release of clinical workforce time and improved patient experience.

Recognising that one in four young people who use a smartphone have experienced depression, anxiety, perceived stress and poor sleep, Humankind designed the pocket digital trainer, Goozby, which improves sleep, concentration and sedentary behaviour, using behaviour science and health analytics.

Kooth, from XenZone, is a transformational digital mental health support service. It gives children and young people easy access to an online community of peers and a team of experienced counsellors. Access is free of the typical barriers to support: no waiting lists, no thresholds and complete anonymity.

MeeTwo is a multi-award winning fully moderated, anonymous peer support app for young people aged 11-23. MeeTwo integrates the latest psychological research to promote the development of protective factors such as emotional resilience, empathy, social skills, stress management and coping techniques.

Mind Moose builds digital tools to support early intervention in children’s mental health. They are currently piloting virtual reality (VR) and online emotional support to help children with their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Mum & Baby app is a personalised digital toolkit to support women and their families through pregnancy, birth and beyond with access to local, national and international guidance and resources.

Mush brings women together to prevent social isolation and reduce anxiety in pregnant women and new mums. It empowers women to build local friendships, share advice and find support from an understanding community.

My Possible Self is the mental health app clinically proven to reduce stress, anxiety and low mood, developed by our team of in-house psychologists. The app empowers people to become their best possible self by using proven psychological methods and clinically-proven research from world-leading experts in e-mental health research.

Shout is the UK’s first 24/7 text service, free on all major mobile networks, for anyone in crisis anytime, anywhere. Shout exists in the US as ‘Crisis Text Line’, but this is the first time the tried and tested technology has come to the UK. The anonymised data collated by Shout gives unique insights into mental health trends to help improve people’s lives.

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