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Should you fund a charities’ mental health app?

By Clare Wilkins 14 May 2019

More young people are reporting mental health issues than ever before, with over one in eight now classified as having a mental health issue. Specialist services such as CAMHS (Child and adolescent mental health services) provide vital help, but they are underfunded and under resourced. Young people face long waiting times for treatment, and many don’t ‘qualify’ for face-to-face support at all. The system is overstretched and needs more capacity.

At the same time, more young people are accessing digital services than ever before and more than any other age group. While offline services tend to scale lineally, with practitioners only able to absorb a certain caseload per person, certain digital services can scale almost exponentially once they are set up and can reach large numbers of people very economically.

Digital tools also bring accessibility, anonymity and privacy, as standard and are capable of reaching huge numbers of young people seeking help exactly where they are looking for it.

Of course, some believe that digital services aren’t appropriate forums for addressing mental health issues but our research, with our partner Nominet, showed that they can play an important role.

While they are not suitable for supporting with all kinds of mental health issues, by virtue of their scalability and flexibility they do have the potential to give overstretched services such as CAMHS some much-needed capacity. They can provide standalone support for low-level mental health issues such as non-severe depression or mild anxiety, or supplement face-to-face practitioner care for more severe and enduring mental health issues.

With in-house expertise in mental health issues and existing offline support services, charities are uniquely placed to build digital tools that are effective and broad reaching. They could choose to provide digital-only help, or direct young people into their existing offline support systems and skilled crisis response services meeting a whole spectrum of need. But many charities struggle to get started. Issues such as funding, limited digital expertise and inadequate marketing of their products all create barriers to entry.

So how can funders help?

  • Understand the market. The digital wellbeing space is heavily populated with private sector apps and tools that are well signposted and appeal to a mass audience. Conversely, digital tools providing support for more severe and enduring mental health issues are fewer in number, more complex in nature, and harder for people to find. This is a space where charity knowledge and integration with offline services can add a lot of value—especially in areas such as crisis response and suicide prevention where organisations such as Shout and the Samaritans are working and developing their digital capability. Funder support for work in this space, and the associated marketing to make sure people know the tools are there and where to find them, could make a huge difference.
  • Work collaboratively. There is understandably some nervousness among funders about providing significant funding to forms of services that they are unfamiliar with, or that may fail. This is where strength in numbers is important. Funder collaborations can reduce individual risk and allow for sharing of expertise. This would echo practice in the private market, where funders co-invest, follow and learn from those with a powerful track record such as Chris Sacca or Alexis Ohanian. Collaborations can also enable funders of all sizes to step beyond the relatively inexpensive product pilot stage and participate in making the big grants needed for taking promising products to scale: ultimately reaching more people.
  • Fund for success. Funding that is long-term, loosely restricted, minimally demanding of outcomes, and accepting of failure might sound unfeasible to some. But funding in this way is relatively common practice in the private sector where investors have backed companies such as Slack, Pinterest and Uber (none of which are profit making yet) to scale with patient and flexible investment terms. Charities also need freedom to invest in expertise, direct resources, test lines of enquiry and follow unexpected paths if they are to succeed and achieve scale. For this to work, funders and charities together need to step beyond the standard granter-grantee power dynamic and instead adopt more balanced partnerships of transparency, knowledge-sharing and mutual understanding.

Now is an exciting time for charities and funders to engage with digital mental health services for young people. It is telling that this year’s mental health awareness week is focused on body image, which is particularly relevant for girls and young women.

We need to be thinking seriously about mental health provision for young people, so that the right help is there for all the young people that need it, when they need it, and in a form that they feel comfortable with.

For a more detailed investigation of charity mental health apps, read our report Charities, young people and digital mental health services.

Photo by mohamed Abdelgaffar from Pexels



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