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Article Article February 2nd, 2016

Mental health: inspiration from isolation

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Mental health services are often focused on patient safety and risk management

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Low confidence and isolation are key areas for improvement

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Risk averse, clinical interventions can’t always best support people with poor mental health

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Today there is a wide range of services available to diagnose and treat mental health patients. But the delicate nature of mental health means that these services are often heavily focused on patient safety and risk management; which creates a culture of learned helplessness and dependency on services. Not the public impact we desire.

Of course, taking risk seriously can be necessary to ensure the safe recovery and support of patients. But we found that when we ask people with mental health problems and learning disabilities what they would like to change, they most often spoke about low confidence and feeling socially isolated. Unfortunately, risk averse, clinical interventions can't always best support them to become more confident and independent in the ways that they want, meaning: more isolation, worse mental health and more dependence on formal services.

Certitude, a UK-based charity which offers a range of services for people with mental health issues and learning disabilities across London boroughs, recognised that there is a wealth of unused potential within communities. They figured that patients already see enough of mental health services and clinicians, and wanted to develop an initiative that focused on building people's confidence, reducing social isolation and getting out into the community.

Working with the Innovation Unit, a design-led social enterprise, Certitude aimed to help make communities more accessible, and modernise and transform the day services for people with mental health issues and learning disabilities.

Working with users

Innovation Unit's design team helped them better understand the people they serve by training them to deliver in-depth qualitative research in their communities, including  co-designing workshops and prototyping sessions so that they could create something that fully reflected the demand of its target users. By training them in co-design methods and tools, they hoped to build their organisational capabilities as innovators; and pave the way for future projects of this kind.

The research and co-design activities strengthened the team's assumption: that people using mental health services didn't need more conversations about their illness; they needed help to be able to integrate and lead active lives. Many of the people they supported had few personal relationships, lacked confidence and relied heavily on interaction and support from paid professionals. Peer support groups, and even the most informal of interactions with professionals were still interactions built around illness, and were no replacement for natural friendships and support networks.

Research shows social relationships are important to the physical and mental health of all of us. Studies show that people with strong relationships have a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those without.  And socially isolated people are also more likely to have early admission into residential care.

Having completed the initial research, the team's ‘reframed' challenge was to find a way to encourage independence and social interactions without creating another high-level service intervention. To decrease the need for mental health services, they needed to provide a light touch, but long-standing alternative to professional support.

To connect and do

The result was Connect & Do, a social networking site, where individuals can find groups and events in their local area, meet new people, share ideas, set up their own groups, and help other local people or groups. The aim is to build a supportive community movement which helps people with low confidence to get more involved in the things they love doing.

Connect & Do has two elements, both online and offline. First there is a website that promotes social activities across a local borough, such as fitness clubs and spiritual groups, which can bring people together through shared interests and a desire to meet new people. Local organisations can map their services on the website to create opportunities accessible to everyone.

The offline element works by training volunteer supporters to help people get involved with opportunities that they like the look of, such as football, painting or learning a language, and meet people with similar interests to theirs. It also has a function that allows people to set personal goals and track their moods and progress. People can also create new groups if one catering for their interests doesn't already exist.

Since the initial launch in Lambeth, the Connect & Do platform has been scaled to include five other London boroughs - with potential for more to come: a true public impact.



  • Welcome to the lab. Governments worldwide share an insatiable hunger for that flash of inspiration that can transform public services. To do so they increasingly rely on a lab, a bespoke group of individuals dedicated to driving innovation and impact. We speak to the director of Denmark's MindLab, Thomas Prehn, about this pioneering approach to policymaking
  • Transformation from the grassroots. Driven by the belief that the best solutions to challenges can be found in communities across the country, the Obama administration created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to find new ways to solve old problems. Here, Dan Vogel talks to the Office's first director, Sonal Shah, about her experiences in reshaping American government
  • From imagination to innovation. Faced with what are often seen as mountainous challenges, policymakers are increasingly reliant on creativity to power their ascent. Alan Iny explains why thinking outside the box is just the start                   

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