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sidekick: The toolkit app charity bringing simplicity back to mental health

In conversation by Marco Ricci

sidekick prides itself in its unique community of volunteer collaborators united by the shared mission to empower people to support their own mental health. In conversation with one of sidekick's co-founders, James Shrager, Marco Ricci explores the story behind the budding charity and its flagship toolkit app.

What is the biggest challenge people face when trying to manage their psychological wellbeing?

It's a question that will no doubt bring many different answers for people with common mental health issues. For some, accessing therapies can be a monumental barrier to getting help, while for others, simply finding a therapy they feel would work for them is the biggest obstacle.

For many though, the problem is a mixture of both, primarily because access to, and choice of, mental health services can vastly differ based on where a person lives in the UK.

Unfortunately, the result is that many people find themselves in a state of support service limbo: if they decide to visit their doctor about their mental health concerns, they are prescribed medicinal treatment and/or assigned to a waiting list for NHS treatment (that can last anywhere from a few weeks to over a year to actually access). If they decide that either their medication or professional therapy sessions aren't right for them, where do they go?

They can of course ask for a change in prescription or service, but whether the new medicine will work is unknown, and the likelihood is that they will end up joining yet another waiting list if they opt for something other than NHS-prescribed talking therapy.

In recent years, this relatively narrow choice of what has long been available via the NHS has resulted in an exponential expansion in alternative techniques. Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, journalling, acupuncture, aromatherapy, and hypnotherapy are just some 'complementary' techniques that have seen a boom in interest over the past decade. As a result, we now find ourselves with an almost limitless library of options for people to try and test for themselves.

But as with anything in life, sometimes too much choice is, well, too much.

Searching for (and failing to find) the silver bullet

"I realised that often, little things like reading an inspiring quote, meeting a friend or reading a book had a big impact on my mood," says James Shrager, trustee and co-founder of mental health charity sidekick.

Like so many people trying to make a difference in how mental health is perceived, James has experienced struggles of his own.

"I'd been seeing quite a few different professionals to try and help with feelings of anxiety. I saw a hypnotherapist first, then a traditional CBT counsellor so I'd experienced a combination of different therapeutic styles.

"What I I found was that little bits of each kind of therapy worked well as part of a larger whole. It was kind of like the opposite of a silver bullet for me – there were bits from both hypnotherapy and CBT that were working really well and complementing each other nicely."

Experiencing the effectiveness of such a combinatory approach, James had an idea. He decided he would develop his own type of 'toolkit' on his phone, consisting of different audio and visual snippets he'd collected during his journey toward better mental health, to use in between sessions.

"The hypnotherapy I had was more like relaxation and I found that really useful to have on me as a sound file on a train or in a situation where I was feeling particularly anxious or panicky. It was really good to just have that on my phone and listen to when I needed to."

But could this idea go further than just a folder on his phone? With the concept of an app that embraced this toolkit approach to wellbeing management and placed it at its very core, and his own vast knowledge of developing smartphone apps just waiting to be tapped into, all he had to do now was run the idea past fellow sidekick co-founder, Matthew Halstead.

"It was back in 2018 when I met Matt for breakfast right before starting a new job. I just said to him "I'm going to build a little app in my pocket that sends me uplifting quotes every few hours and has the audios that I'd like to listen to at my disposal. Essentially, I'm going to build a digital toolkit."

What James wasn't aware of was that Matt had been going through a hard time himself, and had spotted a few things that worked well for him. Naturally, the idea of a combinatory approach to mental health management matched well with his experience too.

"Now, Matt's a very excitable character who latches onto people's ideas and fills them with energy," explains James. "At that point, he said to me "let's do this as more of something that isn't just for you. Something that can help more than one person."

A journey of trial and error

And so, in the summer of 2018, the quest to build the sidekick app officially began. But just like building anything from scratch, the journey wasn't always plain sailing.

What James and Matt wanted was something different to the big mental health names already out there. They wanted a new and distinctive way of helping people help themselves with their mental health that didn't funnel what they were offering into one distinct category, like Headspace or Calm.

"We wanted to be something that would allow people to explore a range of helpful tools. After all, everyone's different," says James. "For example, meditation didn't work for me. I don't like it and I guess if you downloaded Headspace and you didn't like it either, you might think you were a bit of a failure because everyone else is raving about how it's helped them. But it's OK – for some people meditation works and for others it doesn't.

"For a lot of people also, myself included, it's not just one thing that helps. Breathing exercises, music, quotes are all helpful in their own way and potentially more helpful for specific scenarios."

The current sidekick app combines motivational tools, links to support services and guided mental wellbeing programmes

Embracing his toolkit approach, James began building something that would let users try different methods and techniques to see what works best for them. If something really resonated with them, they could then save it to their very own toolkit to access whenever they wanted.

But this is the part where things got a bit rocky. It turned out that building their toolkit app was harder than they anticipated, with original versions of the app "having some teething issues," as James puts it.

"There was just too much for people to go through and they were, if anything, feeling a bit overwhelmed with the amount of information they were being presented with."

In addition to the issues they were facing with building the app, both James and Matthew were in full-time jobs with just a small number of precious hours between them to dedicate to their project.

"I kept building things and re-jigging concepts, trying to find the perfect representation of what we really wanted."

An unlikely spark

James found himself stuck in a perpetual loop of app development, searching for the ultimate form of what he and Matt envisioned sidekick to be.

But things would quickly change come the beginning of March 2020 as the world found itself in a position we've all since become far too familiar with: in lockdown.

As our freedom to socialise and intermingle was stripped away for the good of society, we all began to feel the pressure on our mental wellbeing. Reports of rising referrals to mental health services and spikes in contacts made with support charities quickly hit the headlines.

It was this unlikeliest of events that acted as the spark James needed to finally release the sidekick app to the public.

"We could see that a lot of people were struggling. And as much as we wanted to have something perfect and ready for our audience to use, we realised that we could keep perfecting it for ever and ever. We made the decision to just get it out there and try and help some of the people who were being affected."

Their decision went down well. Early testers and adopters of the app enjoyed the toolkit approach, says James.

"People were saying that they really liked that about the app and that it was making a real difference to their mental health, giving them a reason to keeping coming back to use it."

With a little help from some friends

The app launch gave James and Matthew the time and space they needed to really start developing sidekick. They began putting out job adverts showcasing their idea and their passion to make a difference in the world of mental health. The reaction they got was amazing, says James, with lots of responses from people eager to get involved in the charity and with their mission.

"We realised we couldn't do it by ourselves and that we wanted to do it as a community and find like-minded people with a skill that wasn't the same as ours to get involved."

This community spirit is another string to sidekick's bow of uniqueness which the company proudly flaunts, and rightly so.

"At the core of what we're doing is this kind of partnership strategy," explains James. "We don't want to be a leader, and instead we want to work cooperatively to amplify everyone's efforts.

"It's very hard to get reach and scale and impact, and you can often feel downhearted if you're putting in so much effort to then be overshadowed by a celebrity announcing something on TV. It shouldn't really be like that. It should be everyone recognising what we're all doing and knowing that we're all trying to do good."

Their focus on a communal movement to make a difference in mental health quickly came to fruition in the form of a partnership with Sizu – a UK company dedicated to creating parity between physical and mental fitness.

With this theme at its core, the collaboration led to the first ever Parity Festival. Lasting the whole of August 2020, the Festival involved a series of different activities and events hosted throughout the month on Instagram Live, from salsa classes, to painting, to journalling. The event was a huge success, hosting the likes of Dame Kelly Holmes, Rudimental's Locksmith, and Strictly Come Dancing's Graziano and Giada.

The event perfectly complemented sidekick's so-called 'Wellbeing Workout' feature that allows people to build a monthly schedule of activities to experiment with each day.

"The idea was to try and give people something different to do every day that they can tick off and then see at the end of every month how much they've tried and achieved over the past few weeks. I think giving people the chance to check off these activities and then at the end of the month be able to see how much they've actually achieved can make a real difference to people's mindsets."

Ultimately, the idea is to give the user a feeling of progress and motivation that they may have been missing, says James, which is another key aspect of sidekick's mission.

"What happens between therapy sessions for those people that are already engaged in some sort of therapy?," asks James. "We wanted to try and plug that gap and help those people stay on an even keel between those periods. I think it's quite a hard challenge for someone who's not feeling too good to try and find an app that gives them what they need and that will motivate them to keep getting help."

Staying motivated

Staying motivated was something that James could particularly empathise with. As a co-founder of a charity built from scratch, there were times when James' drive and determination to keep going waned.

"When you devote evenings and weekends on something and then no one downloads your app or your traffic doesn't change, it can get difficult. You so quickly forget about the little wins that you've experienced along the way and find yourself in a funk.

"We just have to remind ourselves of our progress and how far we've come in such a short amount of time. We sometimes need to step back and take a different perspective."

These moments of struggle were what sparked the idea of letting people save their little wins for future reference; a series of pick-me-up reminders of how far someone has developed.

This idea evolved into sidekick's Success Vault – an area within the app where users can store some of their most cherished memories and moments of happiness which they can access whenever things are feeling too much.

Growing ambitions

Now, in late 2021, sidekick continues to grow in its ambitions for making a change.

At the time of writing, sidekick has built a library of over 40 podcast videos on its YouTube channel of people sharing their mental health stories. Everything from eating disorders and OCD, to relationship and career issues are covered by the Sidekick Stories series, all with the aim of encouraging conversations about mental health.

It is a podcast that feeds into what James sees as one of the most crucial factors in progressing the mental health conversation: getting more people to talk about it.

"I feel like the tools and the app are great, but I personally feel like the real difference comes when we open up and talk honestly about mental health. The question for me though is how do we get people to be more comfortable doing so.

"The podcast is an important part of solving that problem and, even though it's only been a year, it's amazing to have such a passionate group of people pulling toward the same goal."

Making a change, no matter how small

At this point in our conversation, I realise that I've already taken up over an hour of James' time. What was intended to be a 45-minute interview quickly became an enthralling deep dive into his and sidekick's back story. His laid back demeanour and engaging, though-provoking answers made it far too easy to venture off on tangent after tangent.

But at this point, I felt that all possible avenues for exploration had been exhausted. All except one: what does James want the legacy of sidekick to look like?

"We want to be seen as a group of people developing tools to help people with mental health issues. Sure, there are moments when we struggle with the process and the journey. But I will always remember what someone once said to me when I was worried about not getting enough eyes on our app. They asked me "isn't that your ego talking? Surely if one person messages you then you know you've made an impact?"

"And they were right. There's lots of stuff to do with a limited amount of time, but it brings so much pleasure to do it and feel like you're making a difference. Even if that is just one person because, ultimately, helping one person really is enough."


Download the sidekick iOS app here, and the Android app here.


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