Making mental health tangible

  • Published: 8 Nov 2017

Graduate Rich Cahill used his design background and our wide network of connections to develop the healthcare app, This is a digital tool for making mental health tangible using text messaging and AI.

If you break your leg and get a cast, it’s pretty obvious you’re poorly. But mental health issues, affecting a third of the UK, aren’t so easy to recognise and understand.

After a brief run of clinical anxiety, following a sports injury, this was an issue that digital interaction design graduate Rich Cahill was keen to explore.

He had an idea that he thought could help: an app to help people visually express their emotional world. This would help them to get a better picture of their changing feelings.

"This project has been the ultimate culmination of my journey as a student designer. Identifying an opportunity in a sensitive, personal area and developing a response into a final fully working prototype."

Rich Cahill, BSc Digital Interaction Design graduate

How did he make it happen?

First of all, Rich had casual coffee chats with young adults from different backgrounds whose lives had been directly disrupted by mental health issues. Their stories and the four proxy personas he created to act as their voice became the key driving force behind his project. At every stage of the design process, he made sure he involved real users.

His next step was to take his app idea to the University's counsellors. From the counsellors, he learnt about different mental health problems, including what can trigger anxiety.

He discovered that what matters most in the context of mental and emotional pain is what people are thinking in a moment of distress. Because the mind works to block out pain, that raw feeling can be missing from the discussion they later have with a therapist.

Mapping the triggers

Rich considered how he could map the triggers for anxiety both visually and immediately. Seismographs came to mind.

He prototyped a number of concepts, before reaching beyond the University for feedback and input. He spoke to Lesley Howells, a clinical psychologist at cancer charity Maggie’s Centres. He also met with Rodney Mountain, an ENT surgeon who works with us at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD) to bring design thinking into healthcare.

With more experimentation and feedback from these and other mental health professionals, Rich arrived at his final idea. He’d learnt that writing thoughts and feelings down helps people to make sense of them.

So he built a text messaging service, which takes thoughts, processes them through artificial intelligence, and presents emotions like anger, fear and sadness on a web dashboard.

The graph it produces can help you understand the patterns more easily. And at its simplest, it’s a great way to get thoughts and feelings off your chest. But it can also be used with a counsellor or therapist to give insights that help with therapy.

Rich benefitted from the great network of contacts we have at DJCAD. By collaborating with mental health professionals, he was able to design and make a valuable product.

What's next?

After graduating, he took up a full-time interaction design internship at IDEO. Alongside this, he continues to explore the area of mental health tangibility and hopes to develop his prototype into a fully scalable digital product.

The most rewarding part of the year came when one of my friends, after hearing about my project said he wanted to use my project to monitor his anxious thoughts and asked me if he could sign up. This is the kind of impact I had wanted to create and being able to answer with a yes made even the most challenging moments worth it.

Rich Cahill, BSc Digital Interaction Design graduate
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