Digital technology to support mental health

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Dan Sutch discusses how schools might use digital technology to address mental health issues and looks at some exciting new ICT projects currently in development.

Mental health is a broad topic. It is a topic that is often associated with mental illness and often a difficult subject to ask questions about or to discuss, especially in a classroom. Yet this shouldn’t be the case, as both mental wellness and ill-health shape the way in which we live and act. 

While some people consistently enjoy mental wellness, figures from the Mental Health Foundation this year reveal that one in four adults encounter episodes of mental illness.

As teachers, being aware of this is vital to how we best support young people as learners and as they move into adulthood. It is particularly important because the figures around mental ill-health are stark. 

According to a literature review from Right Here, a project run by the Mental Health Foundation and Paul Hamlyn Foundation, one in six young people (aged 16 to 24) have a mental illness. That’s close to 1.2 million 16 to 24-year-olds currently facing a range of complex challenges in addition to the already difficult time of being a teenager and young adult.

Simply as an indicator of how big an issue this is, those figures could equate to 16 per cent of your class. 

The same review, entitled Young People Aged 16 to 25: The promotion of mental health and wellbeing and the early intervention in mental health problems, also found that one in 10 children aged five to 16 has a diagnosable mental health problem. What’s more, in financial terms, mental illness is estimated to cost the UK economy £10 billion each year according to the report How Mental Health Loses Out in the NHS by the Centre for Economic Research (2012).

Great organisations such as Right Here and Mindapples (a social enterprise looking to promote “five a day for your mind”) provide resources and information around mental health, both supporting better mental wellbeing and addressing poor mental health and illness. 

Equally, Young Minds – a national charity focused on improving young people’s mental wellbeing – has a whole range of useful resources for teachers. In addition to providing resources to have more, and better, conversations about mental health and wellbeing, there are also some really exciting developments in digital technology to support those suffering from mental illness. 

Digital developments

It is plain to see that digital technology has fundamentally changed the way in which we can access information and support. We don’t need to wait for particular organisations to open their doors on a Monday morning, or even for an expert to deliver selected information for us – we can access high quality resources targeted to our need, very quickly. 

Of equal importance is that these resources can be accessed from anywhere by using the internet. There is a genuine shift in how a supply of information, mediated through professionals, experts and institutions, has become an opportunity to demand and find resources based on individual need and used at an individual’s own pace.

There are of course challenges with this shift: the ability to search effectively, to judge the quality of the resources and information found and to be able to respond to it well. 

So in addition to digital literacy approaches, it is worth exploring where there are specific digital technological innovations aiming to support young people’s mental health.

Innovation Labs

Innovation Labs, supported by Nominet Trust, Comic Relief and Right Here worked with more than 100 young people (with direct or indirect experience of mental illness), mental health professionals, designers and technologists to explore where digital technology might have the best effect on supporting young people to look after their mental health.

The results are seven ideas currently being developed, with the help of funding from the Innovation Labs, to use digital technology to provide highly personalised services and support. The technologies are being developed between now and June 2014 and some of them are detailed below.

Doc Ready

It seems clear that building young people’s resilience is a key component for helping them develop better mental health. For teachers there are a range of resources about teaching resilience and in addition to this, new tools are being created that help young people to deal with difficult situations and to reflect on their experiences as part of becoming more resilient.

For example, Doc Ready developed by Enabled By Design is a digital tool to support young people when they visit their GP and ensure they use their consultation time effectively, helping them to know what to expect, plan what to say, and create “mood records”. Preparation and support are key to ensuring a more useful meeting and in creating a more resilient outcome.

Mind’s Eye

Mind’s Eye by Mindapples/Unboxed Consulting is an online mood monitoring and wellbeing tool for reflecting and linking mood to young people’s lives. By keeping this record, young people will be able to reflect and link mood scores to life-narrative. Words, pictures and sound help understand what contributes to good mental health.

Madlyinlove

Of course, mental health is not something separate from other daily activities – it is integral to how we live and act at home, work and play. For teenagers already experiencing a range of changes physically, socially and emotionally, any mental health problems can exacerbate an already challenging time. Madlyinlove by YouthNet is one approach that recognises that the challenges and transitions faced by young people are not set aside until mental illness is addressed. Madlyinlove is a website dedicated to love and mental health issues – for young people with mental health problems and their partners. It provides advice, factsheets, checklists and exercises.

Medfacts

Finding the right support is another key challenge, especially as part of the digital shift that de-couples information-access from institution. Medfacts provides a straightforward and reliable online information and advice service on how prescribed drugs may influence mental and physical health. This is being developed by YoungMinds.

My Places

Meanwhile, My Places, being led by Sussex Central YMCA, is an online mapping of local services to assist young people in ensuring they find organisations that support good mental health and wellbeing.

Conclusion

From making information more accessible, to helping share and reflect on mood, to finding new routes to support and advice, digital technology can provide incredible ways of supporting young people’s mental health. In addition to these developments, there are some simple steps that can support teachers:

  • Work with the young people in your class to talk about how using technology helps and hinders them.

  • Talk openly about mental health – wellness and illness – it can be a difficult subject but the more we talk about it, the easier it will become.

  • Share the resources here and keep an eye on how the projects develop by visiting Innovation Labs online.

  • Mix your professionalism with young people’s energy and creativity. It is amazing what can be achieved when we work together.

  • Dan Sutch is head of development research at the Nominet Trust.

Further information


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