Unmasking the stigma of mental health

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Three friends with experience of mental health problems have come together to create an a new app. Catherine Scott reports.

The UK’s first free peer-to-peer support app, the brainchild of three Yorkshire men, will be launched next week in a bid to help people with mental health issues find friendship and support, whatever their state of mind. The ‘Unmasked’ app is designed to enable users to create bonds with people they wouldn’t ordinarily meet, to bridge a gap between appointments with mental health specialists.

Unmasked is a free app, built around research and consultation with a number of mental health charities and agencies in the UK. Users can choose to appear masked (using an emoji to convey their state of mind) or unmasked as themselves. The system helps people form friendships with other users with mental health issues – users can search by age, location and illness to chat with peers to give and receive support in times of need.

Doug Dennison, 35 and Logan Smith, 26, have been friends for more than a decade. Both from West Yorkshire, the men each had their own individual reasons for seeking help in the mental health arena, which led to the idea of the Unmasked App.

Doug is from Hebden Bridge and used to work in sales for Ford when tragedy struck his family. Doug and his ex-partner were expecting twins in 2008. Tragically, due to complications during delivery, both babies died in hospital. Just two years later, a similar catastrophic event took place when Doug and another partner lost their child to Edward Syndrome after living just two hours.

In true, stiff upper lip fashion, Doug bottled things up for many years before being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“The experiences I’ve had have left me with severe mental scarring. I had to leave my sales job and take up gardening, but when my friend Logan mentioned his idea for a mental health support app, I realised I had ideas and a lot of relevant experience to bring to the project too. Developing and designing the app has been part of my therapy and I hope it will help users to come to terms with their mental illnesses too.”

Logan, who lives in Sowerby Bridge, came up with the initial idea for Unmasked when his wife was struggling to cope with her anxiety and depression between sessions of counselling.

“My wife was doing well with the counselling sessions she attended but in between appointments the support just wasn’t there. I knew it would be really helpful for her to have a network of peers to chat with when she needed to talk – peers who would understand her particular mental health issues and provide experience and support to each other.”

The third partner is Robin Cunningham, a 57-year-old from Hebden Bridge who always considered himself “bullet proof”, against anxiety and depression.

Following the breakdown of a long-term relationship, ill-health and the untimely deaths of three close family members, Robin carried on working unaware that he was suffering from depression. Gradually he withdrew from all social activities and became more and more insular.

“I didn’t realise I was depressed, I coped during the working day, and shot home at night, drew the curtains, and carried on. I used to be a social animal, and started looking for any excuse not to go out. I was aware help was available but didn’t want people, especially at work to think there was “something” wrong with me.”

The app, which has been written by Middlesbrough-based developers MGC enables users to reach out to other people with mental health issues to find support, have a chat or share experiences.

Designer Chris Carroll originally from Bradford said: “Users can find others of a similar age, in their local area or those who suffer from a similar illness. They can remain anonymous if they prefer to, or they can choose to appear as themselves.

“The app is designed to help people access the support they need on a day-to-day basis because sometimes all someone needs is a message of support to say ‘I know what you’re going through and I understand.’ We hope this app will provide that.

“Safeguarding is one of our highest priorities and the system recognises certain keywords or derogatory terms and will alert the moderators to avoid any kind of bullying or harassment.

“The app is all about support and encouragement and users can give as much or as little information about themselves as they feel comfortable with.”