Mental Health Innovations was founded in 2017 with a mission to use digital innovation, data-driven analysis, and clinical expertise to improve the mental health of the UK population through the provision of digital tools, support and resources. In May 2019 we publicly launched Shout, the UK’s first free, 24/7 mental health text support service. When Shout was established, it was uncertain whether people would want to use text messaging to support their mental health, but, in just four years, Shout has taken more than two million conversations with over three quarters of a million people from across the UK. Strikingly, more than half the people who contact us say they did so because they were more comfortable texting rather than speaking.
Demand for Shout is consistently highest in the evenings and at night-time, when people find themselves alone, without the support of family or friends, and when most other services are unavailable. Shout is powered by thousands of trained volunteers, supervised in real-time by clinically-trained staff, including a team based in New Zealand who provide vital support overnight.
The most common reason people contact Shout is to discuss suicidal thoughts - arising in more than a third of all conversations - but other common reasons include anxiety, sadness, loneliness, relationship problems, self-harm, and eating disorders. In some cases, these texters are highly distressed and may be at imminent risk of suicide, in which case we work with them to de-escalate and safety plan, but if that is not possible we contact emergency services who can attempt to locate the texter and keep them safe. We have carried out this potentially life-saving intervention more than 30,000 times since we launched the service.
Through the operation of Shout we have collected a large, unique dataset with significant potential, not just to enhance the Shout service, but also to improve our understanding of mental health across the UK. We have already been able to realise some of that potential. Our analyses show that some of the groups of people at the highest risk for mental health problems are the most likely to use Shout. For example, around 65% of texters are under the age of 25 (notably almost one in ten are aged 13 or under). More than a third of texters identify as LGBTQ+ and over 20% tell us they have autism or ADHD. Significantly, although people who contact Shout come from all over the UK, demand is highest in the most economically-deprived regions.
With crucial support from Google, the Jensen and Lori Huang Foundation, and others, we have already begun our journey towards the effective use of AI to unlock this potential fully - for example, through the use of generative AI to train our volunteers, by using machine learning models to evaluate the service, and by using natural language processing to gain insight into what people find most (or least) helpful about Shout - but there is much more that can be done. That's why we are partnering with those at the leading edge in data science and artificial intelligence in industry and academia, most notably the Institute for Global Health Innovation (IGHI) at Imperial College London, to take the most innovative and powerful approaches to using our data for good.