Like all the best ideas, it’s very simple. The majority of people who need mental health services don’t currently access them – whether because of logistics, worry about asking for help, or not knowing what’s available. Lots of people use the internet. So let’s offer them safe and effective mental health support online.
Big White Wall has been doing this for seven years, helping over 25,000 people in the UK, USA and New Zealand. Demand is strong and the service works: nine out of ten members reporting improved wellbeing and about two thirds say that they disclosed something on Big White Wall which they have never talked about elsewhere. As one member put it, ‘on signing on to Big White Wall for the first time, all of a sudden I had an array of information, a community of people who understood me. I wasn’t alone anymore’.
People unfamiliar with Big White Wall are often surprised at how much hard work it takes to make this kind of difference: digital should never mean impersonal, and it rarely means simple. Our service is moderated 24 hours a day by specially trained counsellors, with back up from consultant psychiatrists. Another group of therapists provide one-to-one appointments over video, audio or live text. Developers, designers and project managers maintain and upgrade the website and apps, adding new features and refining existing ones. Contract managers criss-cross the country helping NHS, university and workplace commissioners make Big White Wall work in their area, backed up by specialists in communications, digital marketing, and research.
Until 2014, most of this activity was funding from commercial contracts, with some money from grant funders like the Small Business Research Initiative and Nominet Trust for specific projects. Investment from Impact Ventures UK last year has enabled to us to scale up our activities across the board, and especially to enhance our technology base to provide a more personal and engaging experience. In real life, this means better services for thousands of members, helping more people with mental health problems to feel better in ways that work for them.
Of course, new investment has meant new ways of working and new ways of reporting. Because we work with the NHS, and because we’ve had grant funding in the past, we are used to working with a lot of data. Even so, working with the team at IVUK has helped us to continue to mature as an organisation especially around selecting and justifying our metrics, building comparability, and finding ways to make our outcomes clear and understandable for a group who are deeply committed to social change but not specialists in mental health. It’s not been entirely easy – there have been some long days for the research and finance teams – but IVUK’s focus on achieving real outcomes for real people has made it an interesting and rewarding process all the way.