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The app that's making mental health care more accessible


With mental health services inundated, an innovative app could be a huge help.

Let's face it. The NHS's mental health services were overworked and underfunded long before COVID hit, and the pandemic has heaped even more stress on a system that was already making alarming creaking noises.

Long waiting lists and what appears to be something like a postcode lottery means that help isn't always available where and when people need it.

Could technology be part of the solution?

There's no doubt that face to face therapy is very important, but technology can play a role for pre-clinical and non-clinical people as they wait for formal therapeutic sessions.

It can also help people who aren't in severe crisis but who nevertheless are experiencing common issues with their mental health and wellbeing.

For many people those issues are work-related – over half the sick days in the UK are due to stress, anxiety or depression – so it makes sense to take the therapy into the workplace too.

That's what the British mental health app Companion was designed to do.

The NHS-approved app has been designed for two kinds of users: individuals who feel they could do with help and support, and employers who want to support their team members.

It provides a mix of expert audio guides, straightforward strategies and lots of useful information to help people recognise workplace stressors and develop the skills and strategies to manage them.

The app was co-created by Dan Bladon and Dr Robin Hart after Dr Hart helped Dan through his own mental health issues nearly a decade ago.

“I wanted to share the tools and techniques that had been so valuable for me,” Bladon says. “Mental health care should be for everybody: accessible, affordable and effective. And that's what we've set out to deliver with Companion. It's a really effective helper for people who don't feel they need to interact with formal mental health services, and for people who do but who are still waiting to see someone.”

With so many of us tied to our smartphones, apps such as Companion offer a compelling mix of immediacy, intimacy and privacy.

You can access their guidance and tools at any time, in any location; there's no need to take time out of your schedule or to travel.

“That immediacy is really important,” Bladon explains. “It means we can be there to help when someone's actually experiencing a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation, so for example Companion can help them become calmer through its guided breathing. And then later, the same person can listen to the audio guides to learn strategies that'll help them handle their next stressful situation.”

Bladon is quick to praise face-to-face therapy – that was the model that helped him with his own mental health – but he's realistic too.

“We've known for a long time that mental health provision isn't always available to everyone, or isn't available as quickly as we'd like or that best practice suggests,” he says. “Companion can help with that. As much as we'd love to see large scale investment in community and other mental health services, that's not likely to happen. As long as people are falling through the cracks, we can be here to help them.”