It’s Mental Health Awareness Week hosted by the Mental Health Foundation and this year’s theme is body image. Improving awareness of mental health issues, as well as promoting people talking about mental health at a population level, is incredibly important to me and I see technology becoming an ever more important way of scaling access to vital mental health services.
Given that I spend my time around healthtech companies and startups, I’ve been asking those focused on mental health about this year’s campaign. As well as hosting Tim Rogers from Big White Wall on my podcast this week, I also asked Calm, Juno, Xenzone, as well as Headspace and Google (the latter two, I met at the first European Digital Wellness Festival in London) to tell me about what they’re doing to promote positive mental health.
The Calm app provides guided mindfulness sessions for all ages; from young children to the elderly. Meditation has grown – it’s now widespread, more accessible, and Calm’s content is taught with secular language, which resonates with many. Tamara Levitt is Head of Content at Calm and she also champions meditation when it comes to turning a negative body image around:
A negative body image significantly impacts one’s self esteem and confidence. This can lead to relationship and career challenges, depression, anxiety and eating disorders. I struggled with an eating disorder for a decade and mindfulness was key in my recovery. Meditation strengthens the qualities of non-judgement, acceptance and self-compassion, which helps us challenge perfectionistic and negative thinking. It deepens awareness of our emotions and stress, so we can choose nurturing activities rather than falling into habitual behavior and turning to food. It also teaches us forgiveness so that if we do binge, we can respond to ourselves tenderly, breaking the cycle of shame and self-loathing.
The Calm app helps users settle anxious thoughts, deal with conflict and develop healthier sleep patterns. Our apps and phones aren’t actually the problem – it’s our relationships with them that need to be looked at. Meditation apps like Calm are inspiring people to unplug and develop mindfulness, which is the opposite of how most people interact with their phones.”
I support healthtech startup, Juno, on my accelerator program. The founder, Aleksander Binder, wants to help those with body image issues in pregnancy:
Pregnancy is a significant period in the life of a woman, during which time her body undergoes an immense transformation. During pregnancy and the postnatal period, women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies increases irrespective of how satisfied they were prior to pregnancy. The fact that the female body is often idealized in our society, along with the ubiquitous pressure women face from social media, can have a considerable adverse impact on their mental & emotional health. These physical transformations, the internal psychological stress and the external and pervasive sociocultural pressure to return to ‘normal’ shape, remains a strong source of anxiety, and discontent.
At Juno, we understand that pregnancy can be challenging, both physically and mentally, which is why we want to ensure that women and their families have the support they need, when they need it, by providing on-demand access to a network of supportive mental health professionals.”
Big White Wall
Big White Wall offers support to a wide population in the UK, Canada and New Zealand via an online peer support network that is clinically moderated 24/7 and 365 days a year.
Clinical Director and Sports Psychiatrist Tim Rogers, says:
The mental health difficulties that our members experience are diverse, as are the contributory factors. Stress from study and work can understandably impact on mental health, as can relationship difficulties and other adverse life events, such as loss or trauma.
A negative body image is likely to impact on a person’s mental health, regardless of their demographic. A survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation found that a third of adults had felt anxious about their bodies, with one in eight experiencing suicidal thoughts. When someone has a negative body image they may experience more negative, or self critical thoughts about themselves. This can then result in avoidance of feared situations, withdrawal or using strategies to try and cover up, or distract from their concern. In turn this can impact areas such as relationships and work. As a result, our members have access to immediate support from a large peer network and also wall guides, who monitor content and messages and are there to provide additional support to people who may need it. Our users can also access a range of self-help material and courses via the site.”
Zoe Blake, CEO of Xenzone talks about how her platform has been helping people for 15 years and is creating safe communities for young people:
Negative body image may be tied to a host of other issues including anxiety, self-esteem or abuse. We also support those with eating disorders, which most commonly affect teenage girls. This group has several common factors including puberty, so their bodies are changing; gender, so our culture subjects them to sexualised and unrealistic body images; and the digital world, which lacks ‘safe spaces’ where real bodies or lifestyles are reflected.
Supporting positive mental health is why we get up in the morning. We’ve been delivering digital mental health services for more than 15 years, creating safe supportive communities and easy access to professional support to prevent and de-escalate issues, and support recovery. Mental health is for life – we’re in schools, community groups and online promoting that message to the country’s young people.”
Founded in 2010 by Andy Puddicombe and Rich Pierson, Headspace is a global leader in meditation and mindfulness through its meditation app and online content offerings. Headspace inspires, guides and supports people towards healthy routines via the Headspace app, which provides digitally guided meditation, mindfulness and audio-visual tips to help everyone at all stages of life. James McErlean from Headspace says:
Often the same factors can affect us all: finance, work, relationships, physical wellbeing, physiology, digital technology. A lot can be improved with greater awareness, improvement in mental health education across all age groups, reducing the stigma of talking about mental wellbeing, adequate signposting to support and easy, accessible guides to help people live healthier, happier lives. Our vision at Headspace is to improve the health and happiness of the world by inspiring, guiding and supporting people towards healthy routines. We want to do this for everyone and work with non-profits, businesses, healthcare providers to make it happen.”
Rose La Prarie is Head of Digital Wellbeing at Google’s Android. She has a keen interest in behavioral economics and psychology and her team examines how we use our devices and how to make them work better for us. They want users to have more intention and less distraction.
As part of our foundational research, we found what’s called a social obligation loop, which breeds anxiety. If I respond to messages really quickly, you feel pressure to respond really quickly, then we feel anxiety if we’re not able to respond quickly. Plus, if anything happens, where we can’t be connected to our phone, then we feel more anxious. We’re helping people change their expectations, take more purposeful moments to put their phone down, flip it to Shush, which is a free feature, and give themselves space.
People can feel great when they’re disconnected, like when I turn on airplane mode and I’m on a plane, or on vacation, but those are planned situations. What doesn’t feel good is knowing I’m going to be out all day and my battery is already at 5%. It’s really about helping people to have planned moments of disconnection.”