Bridging the gap between mental illness and treatment

Mon, 13 Jul 2020 11:51:00 BST

The sixth annual Making a Difference Awards which took place in May, highlighted the extensive range of social responsibility activities that our staff, students and external partners are involved in. A record number of 180 individuals and teams submitted entries, with judges recognising 17 winners, 28 highly commended and two special recognition awards.

As always, the awards were an inspiring and humbling event showcasing the incredible work that our community does to make a difference. We are continuing to celebrate and acknowledge our winners’ projects by featuring them in a series of articles highlighting the best of social responsibility at the University.

Wellspring - Elliot Mckernon

Wellspring is an app that bridges the gap between those with mental illness and treatment by providing a practical guide with clearly written information about symptoms, self-help, and how to get treatment. The project was recognised as a winner in this year’s Making a Difference Awards in the outstanding contribution to social innovation category.

We interviewed Elliot, a postgraduate in the Department of Mathematics and coordinator of the Wellspring project about the app and his experience with the Making a Difference Awards.

Q. Could you tell us a bit about Wellspring and the main issue that it is aiming to tackle?

A. Despite 1 in 4 people dealing with mental health issues, three quarters of these never get treatment, with many finding basic actions like registering and making appointments with their GP overwhelming. The process of getting treatment can be especially chaotic for immigrants and students who are moving across the country and living away from home. Wellspring aims to help people become less apprehensive about this process by providing information and guidance on how to find your local GP, what to expect from appointments and what to say to your GP about your symptoms.

There are many apps that claim to offer direct treatment for mental health, but the evidence suggests that getting treatment from an app is not very effective, with most individuals needing medication or direct treatment from a mental health professional. Wellspring aims to fill the gap between individuals with mental health issues and practical tools needed to help them get treatment. In collaboration with a psychiatrist from the US and a mental health lecturer at The University of Manchester, we have produced written guides about different mental health conditions, symptoms and what to expect from treatment as well as information on low-risk evidence-based interventions, for example by improving sleep and exercise.

What was the original inspiration for your project?

Inspiration came from a friend of mine who moved to London for university and suffered from depression and anxiety. She wanted treatment but felt overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the whole process and because of this, was trapped in a vicious cycle of putting off going to the GP then feeling worse for not progressing with her mental health. The two of us agreed that I would give her one small step to complete each day such as finding out where her local GP was, getting the form that she needed then filling the form in.

Through helping my friend, I realised that my role could be completely automated as everyone has to go through the same initial process when seeking treatment and that this could work in the form of an app sending you a daily notification of actions to take. The ‘getting started’ to-do-list runs the user through the general steps to take such as finding your local GP and their online rating, with the app including the NHS Find-Your-GP API so that users can put their postcode into the app and find their nearest GP. It seemed natural then to add information guides about different mental health conditions and treatments with the conditions page allowing users to see if they identify with any symptoms.

What challenges have you faced whilst developing Wellspring?

Wellspring has been such an interesting project to work on, especially in gaining insights from a wealth of people across the industry such as GP’s, administrators, as well as clinical and research psychologists on what they thought the problems were in securing treatment for mental health issues and how an app would be best placed to solve these. The general consensus was that it was best to keep the app simple and have a few core features that are most useful for people struggling with mental health issues.

There was a lot of debate around the tone of writing within the app, as a lot of information around mental health is either written in a very clinical way which is difficult to identify with or in slightly patronising flowery prose. We wanted to strike a balance between reducing stigma and remaining respectful towards the user which was difficult as it had to be written in a way that was accessible to everyone. Different individuals have different preferences, with some people preferring blunt, straightforward language with calls to action and others responding to encouragement and more emotive language.

It was also a challenge when writing about interventions such as exercising as it is easy to slip into language that blames the individual for not exercising which can then make them feel guilty and more de-motivated. After the content was written it was sent to a copy editor with psychology experience to ensure that the appropriate messages were communicated.

What difference do you think winning a Making a Difference award will make to your project?

Winning a Making a Difference Award has been great for publicity and momentum leading up to the launch of the app, with one of the other winners contacting us to see if a partnership could be fostered which is currently being discussed. There have also been interested parties getting in touch who want to write articles and promotion for the app.

How does it feel having won a Making a Difference Award?

It feels good that mental health is being recognised as a significant issue and that solutions are being recognised so we can find new ways to improve them. Winning was very exciting and gratifying although I was distracted in the minutes leading up to my category as I didn’t know how well my Zoom would work if we won! I thought that the Awards were done extremely well, particularly the technical behind the scenes parts.

What’s next for Wellspring?

We have launched the Wellspring app on the Google play store and will be seeking feedback from mental health professionals and potential users, before starting an online advertising campaign. Our long-term plans include trademarking our name and logo, as well as registering the app as a medical device, which would allow us to include screening tools to help users identify their symptoms. However, as these things require significant investment, we will be looking for further funding opportunities.

To find out more about Wellspring, download the app, visit their website or contact Elliot at

Making a Difference Awards 2020

8,000 people around the world engaged in our first online awards ceremony on Facebook Live which was presented by Chancellor Lemn Sissay. Details of all winners and highly commended awardees can be found on the social responsibility website, with short films about their winning projects on the social responsibility YouTube channel.