An interview with Sarah Donnelly from My Possible Self at the NHS Health and Care Innovation Expo, discussing the story behind the My Possible Self app, and how it is helping patients with mental health conditions who are waiting for NHS counseling.
How do empowered patients contribute to a better healthcare system?
My Possible Self is an early intervention app that’s aimed at tackling stress, anxiety, and mild to moderate depression. The tool has been through clinical trials that have shown that it can have a real impact within just eight weeks.
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If we can start getting people to use My Possible Self at an early stage when they are just beginning to feel stressed or anxious, they might not need to call on their employee assistance program or enter face-to-face therapy.
The app might be able to help them with their problems before it becomes serious, negating the need for more complex interventions later on.
The tool can also be used when a patient is seeking face-to-face counseling. They may have been to their GP and been added to an NHS waiting list, but this could mean up to six months before seeing a therapist.
My Possible Self is an ideal tool to use during this time because it can teach patients how to manage their symptoms and when they do get an appointment, they may be much more receptive to the therapies proposed or able to use the techniques in a different way. Some patients may even feel that they no longer need the face-to-face therapy.
Who are My Possible Self? Where did the journey start for the company?
My Possible Self started life several years ago as a not-for-profit counseling service. Jo Wilkinson, our founder, set up a practice whereby people who could afford to pay for face-to-face counseling would pay, and their payments would be used to fund counseling for people who couldn't afford it.
She started this business because she herself experienced some mental health problems and face-to-face counseling absolutely transformed her life.
Jo thought “Wow, this is brilliant. Everybody should do this”. But then she considered the fact that not everybody can afford counseling, so she set up the counseling practice, and it was really successful. She actually won the Forward Ladies Businesswoman of the Year award in the not-for-profit category.
She then wanted to reach out further, to even more people, and that's when she decided to turn the company into an app.
In order to get the best possible content for the app, Jo scoured the world and came across the Black Dog institute in Australia. They're an academic research institute led by a team of professors, psychiatrists, and psychologists who are leaders in their field.
Part-funded by a prestigious grant from the Australian government, and with the support of the University of New South Wales, they set up a research institute to look at how mental health could be digitized. This resulted in a program called myCompass, which is an e-mental health program.
They put that program through clinical trials, and found that within eight weeks, it was getting real results. When Jo found this, she decided that she a. wanted to make it available in the UK, and b. wanted to make it into an app that was more user-friendly and could be used on a smart phone.
Jo’s husband, Peter Wilkinson, is a tech entrepreneur in Yorkshire. He owns Inhealthcare, another company that does a lot of healthcare innovations, and along with a team of expert developers, they created the My Possible Self app.
What do the modules teach patients, and how do they improve mental wellbeing?
The app consists of nine Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) modules, and there are new ones coming out each month. Each module focusses on a different topic, such as Fear and Anxiety, Stress and Overload, Loss and Change, Negative Thinking, and so on.
The user starts with a questionnaire that asks them about various different aspects of their life, and based on this, the app will suggest some topics to focus on. The patient can then use those suggestions to decide which modules to do.
You need to allocate around 2-3 weeks to work through each module, and that’s because applying the CBT techniques take time and the change is something that needs to happen slowly.
It’s not something you can hammer through in two days, as you need to apply what you’ve learned into your day-to-day life on an ongoing basis.
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You can do the modules in bite-sized chunks, so you can a little bit on the bus, then a bit more on your lunch break, for example.
Once you’ve completed the module, you don’t get a score or anything like that, you have simply just reached the end of the 2-3 week journey. At this stage, you may feel that the program is complete for you, or you may start working through the next module.
The way the other tools work is in complement to the modules. The tracking feature allows you to choose three things to track. For example, you may choose to track sleep, exercise and anxiety. The idea here is that you are able to spot correlations and patterns in your life that are linked to your mental health status.
The moments diary feature is another CBT technique we use. You can record notes, put photos in there, or emojis that relate to how you’re feeling.
This tool helps users track their journey through the program, so they can look back to the beginning and say “Gosh, I’d forgotten I was feeling like that back then, and wow, I’m surprised at how far I’ve come.”
These tools can be used separately, but also work nicely together.
If you could send one message to patients who may benefit from this technology, what would it be?
We all experience mental health on a spectrum, and we all have good and bad days. Most of us have struggled with mental health problems at some point in our lives, and yet only 13% of us are able to talk about it. I think that’s one of the biggest barriers to getting support.
If I could send one message, it would be that help is available. There is so much support out there, whether that’s through the NHS, your employer or apps like My Possible Self, and it’s okay to ask for help if you’re struggling to locate where those services are. Yes, the stigma still exists, but so much is being done to break that down.
How are My Possible Self working to reduce the extreme pressure currently placed on mental health professionals in the UK?
The app works from two angles. The first is that it can relieve some of the pressure off mental health services in the UK, and the second is that it could also help to support NHS staff in their day-to-day lives.
Nursing is now considered to be one of the most stressful professions, with some of the highest sickness rates among all workers in the UK. This is not surprising. Looking after people every day under very pressurized circumstances often means nurses don’t get the care that they need themselves.
At the end of the day, we’re all patients, and this includes nurses. If we could help people with mild-to-moderate stress, anxiety, or depression, who are waiting for an appointment, we could really reduce the strain on the NHS.
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The idea is that the app could reduce the number of counseling sessions required and also the number of people going to their GP with mental health issues.
GPs are now spending at least one or two days a week supporting people with stress, anxiety, and depression, and although My Possible Self won't be able to do away with that completely, we might be able to help.
We're not here to replace face-to-face counseling, medication or more complex care when it's needed, but what we are here to do is to act as an early intervention tool that may reduce the risk of things escalating.
Where can readers find more information?
Visit MyPossibleSelf.com to find out more about how My Possible Self could help you manage stress, anxiety and low mood, or improve the wellbeing of your employees or patients.
The tool is available as an app from iTunes and Google Play, or via any desktop computer. It is currently only available in the UK.
About My Possible Self
My Possible Self is a digital toolkit that empowers people to transform their mental wellbeing. It’s the first UK mental health app to use content that’s proven to reduce stress, anxiety and mild to moderate depression in eight weeks.
It can also help your employees improve their communication, think more positively, sleep better and build their self-esteem.
My Possible Self is an NHS Digital Apps Library trusted application. It draws upon established forms of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to act as an early intervention tool when life’s challenges start to cause problems.
“It is exactly the sort of measure we should be looking at, supporting people who may be suffering from anxiety, stress or depression to self-manage and avoid a crisis.” Norman Lamb, MP .
“It’s proving really helpful. Having used other apps it’s great to have a refresher in my pocket!” Tanya, app user.
“My Possible Self stands out as a product that not only offers standalone support, but a useful complement to conventional face to face therapy.” David Smith, CEO, Hull and East Yorkshire Mind.