Digital tech startup founder and former teacher Suzanne Edwards is using her decades of teaching experience to help young people access mental health support.
Suzanne founded her elearning company Enlighten, which specialises in augmented reality (or AR) solutions, in Tamworth in 2016. It has developed a virtual “mental health mentor” in the form of an AR avatar accessed via a smartphone, which is ready to be rolled out across the UK. Supported by Staffordshire University, the project was delivered as part of the ERDF Funded Staffordshire Digital Innovation Partnerships programme.
The mentor, which is primarily aimed at secondary school and college students, is activated by scanning a code located on the back of ID cards, student diaries, posters, postcards and other real-world items. It then displays a 3D anime-styled avatar that can be customised to look like the user based on a range of ethnicity and gender options.
The support tool asks a series of questions relating to topics such as anxiety, bullying and depression before suggesting resources that help them identify why they are feeling that way. It also provides access to various support groups and features an option to connect with a parent, friend or teacher. If a user is feeling overwhelmed and having suicidal thoughts, the app presents an emergency call button that directs them to a mental health support line.
How the app looks on on a smartphone
Suzanne stresses that the app, which was developed in conjunction with child clinical psychologists, has been designed as a self-help tool and cannot – and should not – make an official mental health diagnosis.
However, she believes that it can help to “bridge a gap” by allowing cash-strapped schools to scale their provision of mental health support during (and beyond) the pandemic. Instead of feeling the pressure of having to give “correct” mental health advice, teachers can instead be trained to help students get the support they need via the AR mentor, Suzanne says.
“The mental health of young people is in crisis due to the last 18 months,” says Suzanne. “Schools and students have been messed about so much, which has only increased the need for mental health support. Schools’ support mechanisms are also in crisis due to cuts to wellbeing departments, meaning many are insourcing mental health professionals monthly or even weekly.”
She adds: “Our AR mental health mentor support is a low-cost and efficient way of supporting student mental health as they reacclimatise into the school system after a year of homeschooling.”
Suzanne has been guiding Enlighten’s small team, which consists of four full-time employees, during the app’s development. “I’m the type of founder who is all about ideas and project managing,” she says. “Our AR developer Billy Edwards built it, and we outsourced the mental health aspect because that’s really where you need a subject specialist.”
Digital modeller Leighton Wenlock, a recent graduate of Staffordshire University, created the app’s avatar model while working as an intern for the company. After discussions with Billy, a lifelong anime fan, they agreed the Japanese animation-inspired art style would appeal to young people, says Suzanne, who saw an opportunity to tap into the same benefits of avatar customisation that have been used by video game companies for decades.
“I think that mental health is still quite a stigmatised thing, especially for young people who don’t want to be seen as having a mental health issue,” she says. “I think that a customisable avatar promotes engagement and will hopefully promote mental health discussions, stemming from ‘what does your avatar look like’ or something else that can be related to. It is interactive and engaging, which I hope will break down quite a few barriers.”
The idea for the app came to Suzanne after spending two decades teaching English and IT in secondary schools. She says that her company is perfectly equipped to achieve its goal of supporting young people having worked on many AR and VR-based education solutions designed to meet national curriculum standards.
“There are not many people who can cover both the tech and educational elements,” Suzanne says. “Everything we do across the board is fully accessible, meaning we use dyslexia-friendly fonts that take colour blindness into account while catering for different learning styles and language barriers. For me, all of that is inbuilt after teaching for 20 years.”
After piloting the app with a secondary school, Enlighten is now offering it to schools across the UK as a paid-for product. The company is offering two versions of the app; the first, which acts as a generic resource that guides students to the same national resources wherever they are based, has been designed as the most affordable option for schools.
The second is a bespoke version that schools can tailor with links to their internal departments and external wellbeing resources that aims for a local feel. It also comes with access to quarterly reports, including data on how students have accessed support.
Although this option costs more, Suzanne says that it is, “still affordable and there is intrinsically higher value in the quantifiable data provided”. Both versions come with a license that allows an unlimited number of students to be added, a decision that Suzanne says was made with affordability and usability in mind.
By bringing new clients onboard, Suzanne is hopeful that Enlighten can now go on to achieve its goal of supporting more young people with their mental health.