If you’re a parent of a young child in the UK in 2022, there’s a one in five chance that your child will develop a mental illness. Let’s allow that statistic to sink: If we were talking about cancer or heart disease, how different would it feel? How would the NHS and the government be reacting? How would you react?
Now, let’s look a little deeper into the stats box. By the age of 17, 7% of our young people have attempted suicide. That’s one in fourteen. Over 200 children of school age take their own lives every year – an average of one per day during term time. The numbers of children registered with serious self-harm doubled during the 6 years leading up to 2020. Between April and October 2021 alone, over 400,000 children needed medical care for self-harm and similar issues. Over 250,000 young people every year report eating disorders – some as young as 5 years old. 75% of all mental health diagnoses are made before the patient reaches 18. In October 2021, the waiting list for mental health treatment reached over a million people. I could go on These statistics are all in public domain. I’ve quoted from the Office for National Statistics, Young Minds, The Mental Health Foundation, and other sources.
Wherever you look, and by any measure, the situation is very, very bad. And it will get worse -the full effect of the Covid lockdowns has yet to fully permeate the statistics, which generally lag a year or 18 months behind the facts. Already, the authorities expect a staggering 1.5 million new referrals of young people for mental health problems during the next three years. We are talking about serious depression, self-harm, eating disorders, substance and drug abuse, and suicidal ideations. And we are talking about nothing short of a tsunami, a tidal wave of pain, suffering and grief. Even with the best of intentions, the current NHS and charity mental health resources stand like a rickety wooden fence in its path.
How did we get here?
Growing up has never been easy. But we now have a generation that has also grown up with the impact of toxic social media content and cyberbullying, endured two of the most formative years of their young lives under pandemic restrictions and currently faces relentless, 24/7 exposure to news and images of, death, war, and destruction. Many have little or no emotional scaffolding around them. Their well-being and resilience are dangerously undermined and eroded by uncertainty, fear and despair.
The generation currently reaching adolescence is the first to have lived their entire lives in the smart phone world. Babies are given YouTube videos to watch to keep them quiet. Children as young as five have their own social media accounts, and many parents find it difficult or impossible to control what their children are watching.
As many commentators have pointed out, but few of us wanted to hear, social media does a good job of pretending to be free. Of course, it’s anything but free. Now the full bill has arrived. And we don’t have insurance cover.
There’s no doubt that mobile apps and social media have played a major role as the evil villain in this disaster movie. Now, in an ironic twist worthy of Hitchcock, it could be mobile apps that finally come to the rescue. Set a thief to catch a thief.
Whether we like it or not, the only effective way to reach out to young people is via mobile devices and apps. Several established apps, notably Calm Harm, are already available, offering crisis help to children and young adults. We need them and more like them.
As a new start-up, not-for-profit organisation, Mpathy Apps is taking a radically different approach. Working with three psychologists, a social care professional and an informal focus group of young people, the Mpathy development team concluded that early intervention is the key to prevention – to try to help millions more children avoid falling into a downward spiral. So the not-for-profit’s first, free product launch – Mpathy Youth – is designed for an age group around 8–15 years old.
As Kelvin Heard, an experienced emotional health therapist and one of Mpathy’s Directors comments: ‘Mpathy is about prevention, not cure. Millions are going to need professional medical attention as this tsunami breaks. What we hope to do is to reduce the level of the inevitable ‘second wave’, as children now approaching adolescence struggle with immense life pressures.’
Like most good ideas, the Mpathy concept is pretty simple; use an app to encourage children not to use apps so much. Almost an antidote to social media, Mpathy Youth offers no connectivity. User interaction is private and confidential, taking place solely between the user and the app. No data is stored, except for the user’s own diary notes, which are password or fingerprint protected and not cloud stored. There are no ads and you don’t even register to download it.
All of this makes Mpathy a completely safe space; the team believes this is an essential starting point for a trusting relationship, just as it is in a ‘live’ therapist-client situation. The app then offers video, audio and animated content to encourage positive thinking and connection – or reconnection – with the ‘real world’; outside activities, motivational ideas, music, arts, food, giving, and so on. An Mpathy session might typically engage the user for 15 minutes or so, diverting them away from potentially toxic social media sources, and ideally end with the user deciding to go for a walk, ride a bike or go skating. Or just stay home and draw or paint something. Or join a local community action group.
They might decide to make a diary entry about how they feel before and after the activity, and later maybe track their mood and progress over time, further encouraging self-development.
Helen Ferguson, a specialist C-PTSD trauma therapist for women and children, and non-executive director on the board of Mpathy Apps, commented: ‘This app is designed around sound psychological principles. It will offer the young users tools, encouragement, and motivation to develop their self-value and build the emotional resilience they so badly need.’
Social media and the internet generally have done many things to society, not all of them intrinsically bad. Our almost infinite access to information is an incredible tool for humanity. But it’s up to each of us to make choices, good or bad. Mpathy Apps believes that by nudging and encouraging healthier choices it can make a difference, and delivered via a completely free app, it has potential to quickly reach millions of users. It’s not going to stop the current tsunami, but maybe it can prevent the aftershocks from doing quite so much damage.
Having worked for almost a year using their own resources and volunteers to develop the concept, content architecture and app design, Mpathy is currently in a fundraising phase, seeking grant funding, corporate CSR partners or philanthropic support so that the app can be finalised and released. Individuals can also support the project via crowd funding.
David Dowse is a director at MpathyApps.
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