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How charity apps are supporting our mental health

Written for CharityComms. Live link here.

With the vast majority of us having a smart phone to hand, apps can offer additional mental health support, whenever and wherever it’s most needed

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, England is “in the grip of a mental health crisis”. During the pandemic, nearly 400,000 children and 2.2 million adults sought help for mental health problems.

Services were already struggling pre-pandemic. Now there’s never been a greater need to find new ways to support mental health.

Apps can never replace professional therapy and the profound benefits of being heard and understood by another human being. But with the vast majority of us having a smart phone to hand, apps can offer an additional source of help, whenever and wherever it’s most needed. And the privacy offered by apps may appeal to those uncomfortable talking about their issues.

Many charities are making great use of apps for fundraising, but fewer as a route to support users. We’ve found five that might inspire your charity to explore new ways of using tech for wellbeing.

Smiling Mind – mindfulness and wellbeing for all ages

Smiling Mind was developed by psychologists and educators to address the rise of youth mental illness. This Australian not-for-profit app focuses on wellbeing through mindfulness, and has something for every age, right down to four-years-olds (its bitesize meditations are great for children’s bedtimes).

It’s had 6.1 million downloads, is used by one third of Aussie educators, and Orcha (the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps) gave it a rating of 78%. It’s even been translated into Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra to provide accessible mental health tools for Aboriginal people of the NPY region.

Free to download, it’s a good alternative to the paid-for Headspace and Calm apps which dominate the mindfulness app market.

Calm Harm – supporting teenagers

In the UK, self-harm among nine to 12 years old has doubled in six years. And during the pandemic in the US, claims of self-harm among teenagers increased by 99%.

Calm Harm was developed for the teenage mental health charity, stem4, by Dr Nihara Krause, Consultant Clinical Psychologist. The free app aims to help teenagers manage or resist the urge to self-harm and uses the basic principles of an evidence-based therapy called Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. It helps users ‘ride the wave’ through a variety of activities and has a private activity log for users to track their experiences.

It’s won a whole host of awards, including the Third Sector Awards 2019: Digital Innovation of the Year, and is featured in the NHS app library. The charity has three other apps, including Clear Fear, which helps children and young people manage symptoms of anxiety.

Apart of Me – gaming to guide young people through grief

Apart of Me is a therapeutic gaming app to help young people cope with bereavement. It acts as a guide through grief, translating bereavement-counselling techniques into a beautifully illustrated, magical 3D world.

And it knows its audience well, having been co-created by child psychology experts with young people who have faced loss themselves.

The free app has been downloaded over 85,000 times in more than 50 countries. It’s endorsed by major bereavement charities (including Child Bereavement UK), is part of the Welsh Government’s Mental Health Toolkit, and has gained many accolades (including being a finalist in the 2018 Tech4Good Awards).

Right now the app is being translated into additional languages with the help of an army of international volunteers.

Samaritans Self-Help – for support in a crisis

Launched in May 2020, the Samaritans Self-Help web-based app allows you to track your mood, offers evidence-based coping techniques and suggests activities to boost your mood depending on your needs.

Crucially, it has a crisis safety planner, including, for example, somewhere to note down what gives you hope – to refer to at crisis points.

Due to COVID-19, the app was launched earlier than planned to support the rise in mental health issues. This was driven in particular by the fact that face-to-face support services were reduced (or non-existent) during lockdowns and that more people were unable to find somewhere private to call the helpline.

Mindscape – voice activated wellbeing support

While not strictly an app, Mindscape explores the use of AI software to ease anxiety and panic attacks. Purely voice activated, it’s available on Google Home or Amazon Alexa and to get started you only need to ask to "open Mindscape".

You’ll be offered breathing techniques to help calm you, followed by a series of questions about how you’re feeling, tailored self-care tips and a soundscape to lift your mood.

It was developed by Cult Ldn and MassiveMusic in collaboration with Mind and based on the idea that ‘voice technology lets us get as close to possible to the experience of speaking with another person when we’re alone’.

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