Sal Mckeown discovers a new app designed to support troubled students

According to the Mental Health Foundation, the UK has the highest number of people self-harming in Europe — 10 per cent of young people, equivalent to around two in every secondary classroom. Maybe even more as many of them do not tell others.

Now doctors and psychologists, together with young adults and experts, have created a new free app — distrACT — to help young people who self-harm or feel suicidal.

The app was initiated in Bristol by a national advisory group which brought together, among others, Bristol Health Partners, Bristol GP Dr Knut Schroeder, founder and director of Expert Self Care Limited, and Dr Asha Patel, CEO and clinical psychologist of Innovating Minds which works with young people, schools and community groups.

Those who self-harm are 35 times more likely to end their own lives

The team set out to consider alternative forms of support for young people who have self-harmed or are on the point of doing so. They are tackling a massive problem. Every year in the UK, accident and emergency departments report 200,000 cases. In Bristol alone, there are 25,000 hospital cases linked to self-harming.

Suicide prevention is a national priority and research shows that those who self-harm are 35 times more likely to end their own life than others. Prevention is vital, but the key question is how to get information to people who need it. Salena Williams, a psychiatric liaison nurse in a Bristol hospital, explains that when they ran out of leaflets about self-harming, it could be several weeks before they were re-printed.

"When we asked ourselves how we could make it easy and convenient for young people to access information and support about self-harm, the idea for an app was born," said Dr Knut Schroeder. "An app is better than a website, in that it can work offline, loads faster and does not leave a search trail."

Dr Asha Patel is part of the advisory national board for distrACT and provides mental health support for young people and staff within education. She said: "An app is much more discreet. Users can download the app on to their phone so it goes with them wherever they go and they can look things up in private and find local sources of support."

The distrACT app is available for iPhone and Android and is aimed at 16 to 24-year-olds. Content is divided into six areas:

  • About self-harm — facts and figures, dangers and warning signs;
  • Self-help — dealing with feelings, managing the urge, creating distractions and safer alternatives to self-harm;
  • Support — talking to family, healthcare, national helplines;
  • Local support — send an email to get links to local information;
  • Emergency — first aid, feeling suicidal, A&E;
  • Chill zone — art, videos music and other creative interests to help people develop new perspectives and insights.

It's important for information about distrACT to get to schools and educators because students are among those most at risk. "According to research from the Mental Health Foundation, individuals across all ages engage in self-harm, but the rate is highest among young people between the ages of 11 and 25," says Dr Asha Patel. "distrACT offers information and advice about self-harm in a form that is accessible to young people, their families and those who support them."

Innovating Minds is a social enterprise that supports the emotional wellbeing of both students and teachers in the UK. It focuses on an 'early intervention' model so it provides mental health first-aid courses for nurseries, schools, colleges, workplaces and other organisations that help young people whether they are in or out of education or employment.

Dr Asha Patel says: "Personalised psychological support can help young people feel better about themselves and more optimistic about their futures. This is critical if they are to get the best out of education, training or employment."

The organisation is expanding: "I started on Leap Year day in 2016 and it was just me," she adds. "Now we have three full-time workers, three volunteer positions, two student placements and we have created a new whole-school approach to mental health."

This year, as well as being involved in the creation of the distrACT app, she has been working in Bangladesh and she recently won the prestigious Grow It Award from UnLtd. This provides a cash prize of £15,000, access to workshops and networks and tailored support: "The Grow It Award focuses on growth. This is exactly what I need right now. The more Innovating Minds grows, the more impact we can have and the more children we can support."

More information

The app is available at Apple's App Store and Google Play. For links and further details please visit the distrACT web page.

For more information about young people and self-harm, contact Innovating Minds:
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 
Tel: 07854 585 946.

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