Technologies and mental health

Digital Civics projects exploring technologies and mental health were showcased at a student-led mental health conference in Newcastle.

The fourth annual Mind the Gap Conference was organised by Nataly Birbeck, a Digital Civics doctoral researcher and included workshops, panel discussions and live music performances. There were also stalls showcasing local organisations working in the area of mental health, such as charities, meditation providers, and LaunchSpot.

The conference offered an opportunity to discuss and explore many different aspects of mental health. LaunchSpot’s opening competition, Create4Dementia, invites the public to submit ideas for technology they believe could help people living with a diagnosis of dementia. These ideas, having been collaboratively refined by the community, have now been judged by experts in technology and dementia and three ideas have been shortlisted for development. Small businesses and individual developers can now bid for a work contract worth £20,000 to make the winning idea a reality.

People attending the conference were interested to find out more about the ideas and the collaborative design process. Future competitions using the LaunchSpot platform could focus on other mental health issues such as self-harm and eating disorders.

Kellie Morrissey, a researcher involved with LaunchSpot, also ran a workshop session with Jayne Wallace exploring non-verbal communication with people with dementia. Workshop participants made playlists to investigate how music could empower people with dementia, and how fabrics and different textiles could be used to create engaging objects.

Other sessions focussed on subjects such as poetry, peer support and comedy relating to mental health, while discussion panels held throughout the day explored the particular issues around mental health for students, men, people with disabilities and those who are part of the LGBT+ and BAME communities or who belong to a faith group.

Students, researchers, clinicians and members of the local community all took part in the conference, which encouraged discussion about mental health issues. Platforms such as LaunchSpot suggest ways in which digital technologies can intersect with mental health and how technologies developed by the community could shape the way we think and talk about mental health in the future.


For more information please contact Nataly Birbeck.

Lab talk: Ray Middleton

Ray works for Fulfilling Lives, a programme that works with people in Newcastle and Gateshead with multiple and complex needs such as homelessness, reoffending, substance misuse and mental ill health. Many of these people are excluded from the support they need from separate providers, and Fulfilling Lives works to better coordinate these services and move further towards a person-centred approach to care.

Self Harmony: rethinking hackathons

Though there is an increasing amount of work on mental health within HCI, there is little work reported on digital technologies specifically for those affected by self-harm. A literature search showed that most existing work within the context of self-harm had been conducted within psychiatry and psychology, and I began to imagine the ways in which technologies could help those affected by self-harm: not just those who engage in the practice, but their friends and family, too.

We decided to configure and run a hackathon as an opportunity to explore the opportunities, challenges and best practices involved in designing for those affected by self-harm. Although there have been very few hackathons in such challenging contexts, we felt it was an excellent opportunity to bring together diverse communities of people in an environment where they could learn and create together.

Self Harmony hackathonAfter careful deliberation over an appropriate and sensitive name for the hackathon, we decided upon Self-Harmony and it ran over two days in April 2016. Teams of developers, makers, healthcare practitioners, and those with lived experience of self-harm were asked to conceptualise and prototype digital products or services for those affected by self-harm. Seven teams formed around three challenges and created seven diverse digital tools – ranging from a digital distraction box (shown above), to an e-stress ball.

Often with the end of a hackathon comes the dispersion of ideas, teams and concepts, and hackathons are often criticised for this very reason. We decided to extend the conventional hackathon format by holding a series of critical engagements with mental health clinicians and charity workers who provided appraisal of the prototypes and designs.

In doing this, we wanted to reveal the key strengths and limitations of the designs and expose design challenges for future HCI work that considers self-harm. The stakeholder critiques have also allowed us to consider the benefit of extending and rethinking hackathons as a design method in sensitive contexts.


For more information please contact Nataly Birbeck.