A new NI app marries professional and peer support for those who need it, says co-founder Sinead Welsh
Turning to digital help for all manner of health concerns is nothing new: a mindfulness app to help unwind after a busy day, or prepare the user for what lies ahead.
But a new app developed by two Northern Irish women puts local faces in front of those looking for assistance or advice.
Informed Minds shares professional and peer support through short, real-life vlogs. Its aim is to tackle the stigma around mental health and wellbeing issues, to provide access to care and to let its users know that they’re not alone.
Co-founder Sinead Welsh returned to Northern Ireland after living in Melbourne for a decade.
Her role in Australia in child protection involved her working in areas of trauma, mental health, addiction and abuse.
“It was October 2019 when someone we love made an attempt to end his own life,” explains Sinead as to the background of building the app.
“We thought we were a very intuitive family.
“We thought we were very close and we just didn’t see it coming.
“I just wondered what was being done, what was missing, and what could I potentially do to bridge a gap.
“I wanted to bring my international experience back to Northern Ireland with one intention: to support the wellbeing of our people.
“I thought there’s got to be a better way for people to think that there’s no other solution.”
A sense of community and common ground is important for Sinead who grew up in a busy home that was “always packed to the rafters”.
“When I was 13, my mum and dad — I’m the youngest of five children — opened the house to foster kids. I’ve had seven foster brothers over the last 26 years,” she says.
“Mum is a little bit of an earth angel, always been a family support worker.
“Still fostering, she’s retired and widowed. My dad passed 18 years ago to cancer.”
Managing director Paula Fletcher started full-time in the business in October 2019 and the duo’s goal is to reduce self-harm and suicide rates in Northern Ireland and beyond.
Prior to starting the app, they had co-authored a publication on how early intervention saves lives.
“We started to ask colleges and further education spaces that if you were worried, where would you get information or courses?” says Sinead.
“I thought about how could I find the best way to bring real people into technology.
“Meeting people face to face, there’s no replacement for that, but the app is a close second and that’s what I want it to be.
“There’s no substitute for face to face but that opportunity to look at somebody in the eyes and hear their real, raw stories, and hope that would destigmatise how we think about mental health, how we talk about mental health.
“More importantly to me, it was to generate hope.
“You think you’re the only one going through this in the world, but you can step into our app and get the short videos,” she says of the vlogs which are between three and five minutes in length.
Currently aimed at peopled aged 16 and over, Dr Colm Walshe and Dr Paul Best at Queen’s University conducted an independent evaluation service report on the app which highlighted its potential success.
“We had 20 videos when they did that — 10 lived and learned people had come to us, volunteered out of good will, to give us their videos across a range of topics,” says Sinead.
“We now have over 400 vlogs; people have joined our mission. We cover topics such as alcohol, confidence, emotional intelligence, grief, homelessness — everything from wellbeing right through to serious stuff.”
The first of its kind specialist mental health app also houses a section entitled ‘I’m Not OK’, which is a directory of free local services.
Sinead adds: “We’re building on real videos, real people about what people can expect [if they contact a professional service], to demystify what is going to happen if you are looking for help or give someone a jingle when you’re not feeling well.
“The vlog providers have said that providing the videos was almost therapeutic.
“They feel a sense of relief in getting their story out, and the fact we’re going to use it to try to help one other person is so powerful.
“That’s why people are flocking to us because that’s what we’re trying to do: maybe, just maybe, your video could be the one thing to give someone hope.”
Sinead and Paula are currently working with universities — having launched in Ulster University last month — private companies, and are also exploring helping the health and social care sector.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all. You can’t put us in a box and think all our wellbeing needs are being met,” she says, viewing the app as being an additional aid for those who need it.
“There could be days that you’re doing well with your mental health and you want to keep going, so you’re motivated and you want to know how other people do it.
“It could be gratitude or yoga or mindfulness, so you get these ideas from other people on our app.
“It’s local access, so it’s people who live here.
“It’s about maintaining good mental health, so it’s not all about suicide ideation.
“Of course, we do signpost to crisis support but it’s all about figuring out what we’re stressed or worried about before it escalates, before it spirals into something more serious.
“That’s where we’re trying to position ourselves.
“If it’s important to you, it’s important, no matter what it is.”
The peer-to-peer aspect in particular has prompted positive feedback, accompanying that feeling of not being alone.
“We also go into societal taboo topics.
“We’ve got male victims of domestic violence included — drugs, eating disorders, sexual behaviours,” explains Sinead.
“We go into things so people know they’re not on their own and it’s that retelling power that not only generates empathy, but gives people ideas of choices to make moves forwards.”
Sinead and Paula plan to bring the app to under 16s but only when the other areas are completed to their satisfaction.
They hope that the app will be in the back pockets of every student, academic and parent, offering advice and support for young people on how to cope better and increase their self-care strategies.
Sinead was recently appointed a clinical entrepreneur by Prof Tony Young, the clinical lead of NHS England, which allows her to develop entrepreneurial aspirations within her field.
You can access the Informed Minds app on Google Play store for a 14-day free trial. Following a trial, it is £4.99 per month or £49.99 for a year. For more information, please visit https://informedmindsapp.com