How new digital technology is helping young people to cope with mental illnesses

Mei Leng Yew
phone getty 300x225 How new digital technology is helping young people to cope with mental illnesses

(Getty Images)

Mental illness can be your very worst companion. It might keep you in your bed all day, coiling round you with its tight embrace and soft whispers, “Stay here. The morning’s past and you’ll never manage anyway. You can try again tomorrow but today’s already lost.” When bedtime beckons, you might not sleep. Your illness bothers you with its tears and its worries or its silence until morning returns.

There are over 7 million people aged 16-24 years old in the UK, and while being a young person is difficult enough, one in six of us bears the additional burden of having a mental illness. This makes each day, each event and each task much harder to conquer. Unfortunately, suicide is now the second largest cause of death amongst 15 to 24-year-olds while mental illness is estimated to affect one in four people and costs our economy around £10billion each year.

Research has found that early intervention and resilience-building are key to helping young people grow up into healthy adults and it is in everyone’s best interest to help young people access treatment as early as possible, so that they can keep moving forward with their lives. However, when you have an illness, everyday tasks can become difficult and when you have a mental illness, getting across town to a counsellor each week can be an impossible feat. Going to a counsellor might also seem old-fashioned, out-of-touch or plain undesirable to today’s young people, who communicate in a million more ways than just face-to-face.

With digital technology developing rapidly, it’s important that our mental health services also evolve. Imagine wanting help or advice, but feeling utterly unable to leave your bedroom. You could reach for your laptop or phone to find an online counsellor to write to. You might download a meditation app to help you focus your thoughts, or activate an alert system that can notify your closest friends that you could do with a chat or a visit.

With the technology already in our hands, there is no reason why we shouldn’t find it as easy as possible to access the support that we need, whether we are suffering from a mental illness, recovering from one, or just trying to look after ourselves.

Thankfully, this is where the ‘Innovation Labs’ is involved. It is a groundbreaking project that is giving young people the opportunity to design digital tools to help with their own mental health issues. The labs are being funded by several organisations including the Nominet Trust, Comic Relief and Right Here. The last is a charity I’ve been volunteering with for almost five years and so, I was offered a unique opportunity to sit on the Innovation Labs project team.

From the very beginning of the labs, young people have been involved on an equal basis with adults and everyone has brought their own expertise to the project. This ranged from personal experience of mental illness and first-hand encounters with existing medical services to technology fans and expert gamers. The project is neither youth-led nor adult-led but a collaboration between product designers and end-users. In this case, the end-users are young people who want new ways to look after their own mental health.

Along with other young members of the project board, I attended meetings to help plan the labs, sifted through applications from young people who wanted to take part, and interviewed the professionals who we’d hire to work with us to create the digital tools we co-designed.

Finally, we brought together 60 people from across the country for the first lab. In that one day alone, 194 different ideas were generated and by the second lab day, they had been boiled down to eight. These eight ideas have now been sweated over and have transformed considerably into exciting projects of their own.

My personal favourite is Mind’s Eye, a mood-monitoring and well-being tool that will help young people manage their own mental health on a day-to-day basis. Meanwhile, MadlyInLove will support young people who are dating someone with a mental illness and Doc Ready will help young people who are visiting their GP, so that they are using their consultation time effectively and get what they need out of the appointment.

These ideas have now been granted funding and young people will be involved in the development of each idea into a final product. It’s been a fantastic process so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results in June 2014.

To read about the other ideas that are being taken forward and for more information visit

If you are a young person aged 16-25 and want to help us develop one of the seven ideas further, please email

Mei Leng Yew is a youth Champion for the Right Here Project. She is also a member of the Innovation Labs Project Board

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  • RedRoseAndy

    Sleep experts say that most mental illness is caused by little, or poor, sleep. To get the sleep you get at the coast when the wind blows in from the sea just heat salt water in an oil burner overnight. In just five nights insomnia is cured, and this takes with it all symptoms of mental illness. More than three patients have had this cure witnessed by their own Doctor, and local Clergy.

  • lightningduck

    Get this RedRoseArsehole off here-he’s a dangerous little freak.

  • Plebian

    I thank you for your well-intentioned suggestion; but of course there is a significant fire risk involved if a candle-fuelled oil burner (by far the most common variety) is left operating while unattended. Might an electrical vaporiser or diffuser model suffice, if you want nocturnal aromatherapy in a safer manner?

    Also, while complimentary therapy has its merits; I encourage anyone experiencing mental health difficulties to seek professional medical attention first and foremost – that’s what GPs are for. There’s no shame in asking for help.

  • Christopher Stares

    ‘Mental Illness’ can range from mild anxiety to full blown psychosis so it’s like saying I have an app that can help with ‘physical illness’. Well meaning but as a psychiatric nurse for 30 years this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me I’m afraid..

  • Mei Leng Yew

    There are lots of different mental illnesses, of varying severity and of course one app can’t help with everything, and it would never be a ‘cure’. However, one app might help a young person look after themselves on a day-to-day basis, be self-aware and also to better communicate their thoughts to a medical professional.

    If you click on the links above to look at the other ideas being developed, you will see that one is a database about medication and prescribed treatments while another is a signposting tool towards mental health services. Both of which are already useful for people with physical illness, but which don’t exist in a comprehensive form for young people with mental illness.

  • RedRoseAndy

    I do suggest this on my website. It is also possible to design one based on the Davies miners lamp.

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