What is Buddy Help?
They really wanted to form friendships around their mental health journeys and they wanted to do it through social networking
Buddy Help uses a social networking format to bring 10 young people into a virtual group which is age and diagnostic specific (e.g. a group for 14 year olds currently experiencing mild depression). The program is specifically designed to be used on mobile devices (and computers), and a Kids Helpline counsellor is assigned to each group. This means that the service is available 24/7 so that members have access to support when they really need it.
Dr Andrew Campbell (lead researcher for Buddy Help) explains that this evidence based program transforms the traditional model of group counselling into a space that is more familiar to young people 'We’re basing it on group counselling which is very supportive for the long-term mental health journey,' said Campbell.
The most unique thing about this program is that all members are anonymous to each other. The counsellor knows who they are (they enter through Kids Helpline), but inside the group they use pseudonyms and have strict rules about revealing personal information.
'It’s important to us that they don’t reveal who they are. We have a very strict contract that states that while they’re in the Kids Helpline Buddy Help service they don’t reveal who they are. If they choose to exit the service and meet offline or online in another forum we can’t stop that, but the truth is they’re already doing it, they’ve been out there looking for that connection. Now we’re offering a safe area with an expert trained counsellor who can actually answer their questions, and also identify when things are going a little bit awry in the group and try and keep the group dynamic together', said Campbell.
Studies have shown that young people desire anonymity when seeking help for mental health issues (Rickwood, Deane, Wilson & Ciarrochi 2005). This program allows them to access professional support privately while socialising with peers of the same age who understand what they’re going through. Buddy Help is taking the counselling clinic to where young people are looking for help.
But it’s not all serious therapy. The program effectively utilises the interactive and creative nature of social networking alongside evidenced based therapies. Group activities include sharing music, playing games and creating movies together. It draws on art therapy, mindfulness training, bibliotherapy and video logs where they use images and sounds to create a video of how they’re feeling.
'We have set days where we say “today’s the day when we’re going to get everybody to laugh, put up your funniest things”. And at the end of the day we see how we’re all doing with that. That forms the bonds to keep them coming back', said Campbell.
Where did the idea come from?
Buddy Help emerged from feedback that Dr Andrew Campbell and Kids Helpline received from their respective young clients:
'They (young people) were asking, “Can I talk to people who are going through the same problems as me but anonymously?” They really wanted to form friendships around their mental health journeys and they wanted to do it through social networking, they were very clear on that', said Campbell.
The intention of Buddy Help is to make social networking safer for these young people, so they can develop connections with others going through the same journey and have the supervision of a trained counsellor as a safety-net. The trial began on 10th September and is entering its 3rd month.
The benefits and risks of using a social media platform
Using social media for service delivery can be risky, however the benefits seem to outweigh the risks (Robinson, Rodrigues, Fisher & Herrman, 2014). Dr Campbell outlined some of the valuable benefits and most important risks informing the delivery of Buddy Help.
Through social media young people are able to lead the design and delivery Buddy Help and make it their own. They are informing what activities they want to engage in, how they engage and when they feel most able to:
'The young people are saying, “this is what I want to know, this is when I want to know it, this is how I want to share it, this is how I want to create,”' said Campbell.
This ability to customise their experience is allowing the participants to feel more comfortable and to be themselves in a supportive and friendly environment.
'The benefit so far is to get them to come out, face life with a happier feeling of support and hopefully translate that into their offline worlds in time as they start to heal', said Campbell.
The social media format (in this case Google+) is specifically designed for effective communication. With the ability to share things of interest, hold a conversation or show appreciation (by liking or +1), social media is an effective and dynamic communication tool that is used by almost all young people every day. Young people can remain anonymous and access Buddy Help wherever they are, which breaks down some important barriers for accessing services. By using social media, the counsellor is going to the young people rather than the young people having to find the counsellor.
Dr Campbell identifies three main risks of using social media to facilitate the Buddy Help program.
The biggest difference between Buddy Help and traditional group therapy is that everything is digitally recorded by the social media platform.
'You’re engaging with a counsellor and you consent to that but you’re also engaging with the social network platform for the company that offers it. And in this case we’re using Google+ we’ve got a lot of control over it but ultimately that information is still stored by Google', said Campbell.
The anonymity of participants becomes very important so that users cannot be identified with the content they are putting out there. There are complex consent procedures in place for Buddy Help to ensure that all participants understand this risk
The young people who will benefit from Buddy Help have a very real risk of relapse while participating in the program. With social media, those relapses happen in front of the group. The program encourages the participants to help each other out during this time with the counsellor there to support them. However, social commentary on their own experiences is not always what young people want to hear. As Dr Campbell explains:
'They need to be prepared to have these strangers who are going through their own journeys to also have comments on their experience. And so sharing that space is a bit difficult at times but I don’t think it’s any different to group therapy in general.'
With structured support, this risk may even turn out to be a benefit. However, no conclusive evidence can be drawn at this early stage of the trial.
Prevention of suicide
When young people are using an online service it can be harder to connect them with emergency support when they are at risk of self-harm or suicide. Buddy Help uses participants’ consent information to allow emergency service to locate them and send appropriate help if needed. This requires them to give up some initial personal information (e.g. address and phone number) so that these safe guards can be put in place. 'We want to make sure we can reach them if they’re getting on that downward slope,' said Campbell.
What do the young people think?
So far, the participants of the trial are finding the program highly engaging and feel more motivated to challenge their problems. They are feeling empowered, and are actively asking to meet more people to tell them that it’s ok to talk about mental health. For a trial program in its very initial stages this is a positive sign of good things to come.
*Feedback from young people is predominantly anecdotal, as the trial is currently ongoing. On completion of the trial, other data will be collected and reported including psychometric feedback.
The Buddy Help program is currently closed to new participants until the end of the trial. In the future, referrals will come directly through the Kids Helpline phone and online counselling service. We will keep you updated as more information becomes available. Find out more about Kids Helpline's Buddy Help program and check back in 2015 for an update.
About Dr Andrew Campbell
Dr Andrew Campbell is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at The University of Sydney, a practicing psychologist and the lead researcher on the Kids Helpline Buddy Help pilot program. Read the Q&A with Andrew Campbell: Young people, technology and e-mental health.
Rickwood, D., Deane, F.P., Wilson, C.J. & Ciarrochi, J. (2005). Young people’s help-seeking for mental health problems. Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health, 4 (3), Supplement. www.auseinet.com/journal/vol4iss3suppl/rickwood.pdf
Robinson, J, Rodrigues, M, Fisher, S & Herrman, H (2014), Suicide and Social Media: Findings from the Literature Review. Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, Melbourne.