Australians Reach Out and Inspire in Dublin

The Australians have a habit of being innovative in Mental Health. Just as GROW started in Australia in 1957 and came to Ireland in the 1960’s, ReachOut.com came into being some 40 years later in Australia and was launched in Ireland in 2010 as an initiative of Inspire Ireland. ReachOut.com, which focuses on young people’s mental health, was the first on-line mental health service and was conceived in that era before Facebook when the internet was just starting to grow. ReachOut’s inaugural International Technology for Well Being Conference, #T4WB13, which took place in Dublin on 25-26 September, was a huge success and they should be congratulated on a job well done.

Gerry Raleigh (Director, HSE, NOSP), who admitted to being a bit technologically challenged, talked about the NOSP’s own Reach Out strategy on suicide prevention, originally conceived in pre-internet boom days, and gave a commitment to invest in technology, as he could see the value in reaching a huge on-line audience. He stressed the importance of joined-up thinking in the sector.  Minister Frances Fitzgerald stood in for Minister Kathleen Lynch, who was unable to attend for health reasons. As a former social worker and as someone who has worked in the mental health services sector, Minister Fitzgerald was well placed to comment, and she also highlighted the need for inter and intra agency co-operation, citing a recent case where more than a dozen agencies were involved in a child services issue. On a positive note she had noticed a reduction in stigma in recent years and drew a parallel with how cancer used to be talked about in hushed tones, but was now discussed openly without fear of stigma.

Elaine Geraghty, CEO of ReachOut.com/Inspire Ireland, introduced Prof. Margaret Barry (NUIG), one of the authors of the Bridging the Digital Disconnect Report, which was launched later in the day. Prof. Barry quoted the WHO, “there is no health without mental health” and whereas in the past, the focus might have been on treatment and prevention of mental health problems, there was now great scope to promote positive mental health in individuals and that in turn has a positive impact on communities and society as a whole, echoing what is said in the GROW literature, “each person’s recovery or growth aids the transformation of the world”. She, along with Dr. Aleisha Clarke,  spoke of the challenges which lay ahead in increasing digital as well as mental health literacy. The internet offers a cost effective way to deliver information and services, and to encourage dialogue, but users may be overwhelmed by the “tsunami of information” and find it hard to filter out the trustworthy and safe content. A theme which arose consistently throughout the conference was the idea of a funnel with on-line forum, self help and information services serving the larger population whilst channeling those in most need to more focused on-line or face to face counselling services.

Aram Hosie, from the Australian Inspire Foundation said about 99% of youth were on-line daily, many on their phones, so he said that was where the future lay.  Aram spoke of many interesting on-line tools such as MoodGYM, eheadspace, the Black Dog Institute and myCompass, and innovations such as HITnet (kiosks to bridge that digital divide). Many of this innovation has been driven by the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre (who also played a big part in the Bridging the Digital Disconnect report).

In the unlikely event that conference goers were flagging by midday, Darragh Doyle most certainly livened up the proceedings with a whistlestop tour of cyberspace. His main message was one of sheer positivity and the main aim of his many on-line personae was “to make someone’s day better” and he emphasized that there was “an on-line army out there” (as is found daily on Boards.ie or Turn2Me.org) waiting to do just that. Darragh likened an internet journey to a pleasant walk down Grafton Street, with plenty of distractions and interesting diversions along the way.  Mainly, people were after information and entertainment, the latter primarily in the form of fluffy dogs apparently!

MC for the day, Conall O’Morain (Sunday Business Show, Today FM), chaired a re-enactment of a scenario whereby a young male sought help from an on-line mental health service. This was an innovative way to present the feelings and views of the young sufferer, his family and the on-line community (ReachOut.com and Turn2Me.org specifically). This prompted a discussion on how forum moderators categorised issues and the mechanism for bubbling the critical ones up to support agencies or the Gardai.

Oisin Scollard, co-founder with brother Diarmuid of Turn2Me.org, presented the startling statistic that 1 person dies from suicide every 82 minutes across Ireland and UK and that there are about 30,000 cases of self-harm reported in Ireland annually. Oisin briefly summarised the Turn2Me services on offer: From open forums and on-line groups to limited one to one counselling and the innovative mood monitoring tool, Thought Catcher. Oisin works for Google so it was no surprise that he focused on how it might be possible to analyse the data available to spot patterns or signals which might more easily identify those at risk. E.g. if 1,000’s of users are on-line how can a moderator (possibly a trained volunteer) best prioritise workload.

Derek Chambers of Inspire Ireland then looked at building good practice guidelines for the on-line mental health sector, bearing in mind that some 77% of young people go on-line as their first step when seeking information, advice or help. Derek spoke of plans to assemble a Technology & Mental Health Network comprising those organisations active in the sector. He emphasised that empowerment came through increased knowledge and there may be a need to challenge some of the dominant thinking in mental health. E.g. when Googling “Mental Health Images“, instead of pictures of people enjoying their good mental health, we are presented with images of brain scans and suffering.

There were a number of parallel sessions during the day and truth be told, many present would loved to have visited them all. A sample of what was on offer: Social media & blogging by Fiona Kennedy (Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers); a cool app to share problems with friends by Mark Nolan (WotDaFunk); a demo of the SilverCloud Health application by John Sharry; a demo of the Recovery Context Inventory by Tom O’Brien of EVE (a HSE Programme); an evaluation of the effectiveness of MoodGYM by Conal Twomey (UCD); and many more…

Kerrie Buhagiar from the Inspire Foundation, Australia, presented many tips on how ReachOut had re-developed their website and on-line services by using a participatory, iterative design process whilst fully engaging the youth at every step of the way. Isolation is a key feature of mental ill-health, so breaking that isolation by giving on-line users a sense of community was important. Similar to earlier speakers, Kerrie emphasized the importance of putting the available data to good use (e.g. in providing personalised or targeted content, similar to what Amazon does so effectively).

Internet safety expert, Dr. Rachel O’Connell, summarised the key themes and findings of the conference with a view to presenting a set of recommendations to the Minister, as requested. Dr. Colin Hunt, Chairman of the Inspire Ireland Foundation, then wrapped up the conference and promised that there would be a T4WB14.

So what does all this mean for GROW in Ireland? When GROW first reached Ireland in 1969, many homes did not have a phone, yet GROWers have embraced mobile phones and texting as a way to offer mutual support in between meetings (known as 12th Step work). Will we see on-line GROW groups or on-line forums dedicated to offering 12th Step support centred around the GROW Programme? Who knows what the future holds? One thing is for sure though, technology is changing the way we live our lives and as J. H. Newman said “to live is to change and to live fully is to have changed often”.

For those who missed this conference, fear not, full details of all the talks & presentations can be found on the ReachOut.ie website: Main Speakers, Parallel Sessions.