With two pilots completed and strong interest from UK government and mental health charities, there looks to be interesting potential to harness Augmented Reality to provide mental health help to those who are hardest to reach, writes Amanda Westgate.

Can technology make the world a better place? If it simply provides a more connected, automated and controllable environment, will we merely see communities grapple with current social ills but with far less human interaction to support them?

According to mental health charity, Mind, around one in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem in the coming year. While the likelihood of suffering conditions such as anxiety and depression is steady, people are struggling to cope. The charity says: “It appears that how people cope with mental health problems is getting worse, as the number of people who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts is increasing.”

“The option to be able to discretely scan for help in a crisis could quite literally save lives”

Suzanne Edwards, Enlighten

From a gender perspective, according to the Office for National Statistics, in 2016, three quarters of the suicides in the UK were men – typically the least likely gender to ask for help.

Can technology help to address this crisis and, if so, could it particularly support the way men cope with mental health issues?

According to a project being led by Tamworth-based learning consultancy, Enlighten, the answer could lie in bringing Augmented Reality more firmly out of the world of gaming and into mainstream communications.

AR in a UK Prison

Enlighten has developed various Virtual and AR concepts to support new ways to deliver education and training and now believes that AR could plug an even more pressing need.

Co-founder, Steve Wileman, Head of Technology and Development, explains: “As part of our work to develop AR to deliver interactive training and information, we realised that it has enormous potential to interest and engage groups of users who are the most likely to be disenfranchised from traditional communications methods.

“For example, we have carried out pilot studies in a prison setting. Inmates, with restricted access to other forms of stimulation and support were able to use AR to easily obtain important information on how to improve their mental health. Perhaps most significantly, they were also more open-minded and receptive due to the nature of the delivery method.”

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

A Second Pilot for Mental Health

The premise is simple. Provided with devices (which in the case of the general population are mobile phones) and an anchor point such as a poster or wearable device, users can instantly access available guidance and advice.

Using the Enlighten AR platform, users can manipulate what they see, decide how long they want to engage for and under what circumstances. They are taken quickly to relevant audio-visual material, in a creative and engaging way.

Wileman adds: “We have also carried out a similar pilot project, with South Staffordshire College. Students were offered access to information and guidance on mental health issues using an AR app.” A partner in the South Staffordshire trial was Terry Hammond, a former Director of UK charity Rethink Mental Illness and a passionate advocate for AR as a communications solution.

Hammond explains that, for the most part, the results of the South Staffordshire College project were anecdotal. “At the time, we felt there was significant peak in both the numbers of students seeking support from counselling services and those using a college advice line.”

Was this a sufficient basis on which to take the concept forwards and secure the backing of his former bosses at Rethink Mental Illness?

Hammond says: “The charity has grabbed the potential of AR with both hands. They are exploring potential funding streams to take it forwards. The next step is to work with Enlighten on a project that provides measurable and unequivocal data to show its success.”

Utterly convinced of its ability to be a “limitless tool” in addressing mental health issues, Hammond is heartened by the fact the funding required for this next step is tens of thousands of pounds, rather than astronomical and unfeasible sums.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

How AR could provide Mainstream Mental Health Support

The plan is to take Enlighten’s AR app to a large and more varied range of locations. This would include test-bed colleges that are members of the Blended Learning Consortium and potentially health facilities such as GP surgeries as well.

Hammond says: “There is abundant research to show that early intervention creates a better prognosis for people who experience mental health issues. Yet this is something that stigma, inhibition and isolation currently prevents. The fear factor of admitting you have a problem is one of the biggest obstacles to good mental health.

“AR provides an opportunity to get discrete, instant and wholly controllable advice and support. It tackles the fear factor head on.”

Enlighten co-founder, Suzanne Edwards, Head of Education and Qualification Design, believes that, once the next test phase has been completed, more charities and the Department of Health itself are likely to use AR as a realistic way to tackle mental health issues in communities UK-wide.

She says: “This is a versatile, scalable and instantly changeable way to communication information and advice to people at point of need. The option to be able to discretely scan for help in a crisis could quite literally save lives.

“When we tested the concept in prisons, it was not only the inmates who used it to address their problems. The officers too had access to information on workplace stress. This shows how universal AR could be and how adaptable it is to meeting specific issues.

“Imagine the amount of information and signposting that can be provided on AR platforms. It could include, for example, immediate sources of help in your location, direct dial phone numbers and access to instant messaging services.”

Enlighten’s founders say the Department of Health is not the only UK government department taking an interest. Wileman states: “The Ministry of Defence is certainly going to be sent data from the next phase of its development. The potential to tackle isolation and stress in armed forces personnel, wherever they are in the world, is something that has to be taken seriously.”