Mental Health Support Goes Digital

USupportMe—the 'Uber' of mental health—has the power to bring psychological support to millions of teenagers. Following a successful pilot, this innovation is ready to meet its full potential.

A girl types in her phone.
09 December 2021

Mental health is in the spotlight. COVID-19, which forced us to abruptly change our social routines and isolate, has taken a psychological toll on people across the globe. Young people have been especially hard hit by these changes. But even without the pandemic, different stresses can negatively impact mental health. Millions of young people are forced from their homes, scarred by conflict, and deprived of schooling each year. Some face even worse adversity. When we ignore the mental health of adolescents, we undercut their capacity to learn, build meaningful relationships, and contribute to the world. Mental health is a critical part of development.

There is a large gap between teenagers and current services. Though support exists, it isn’t always easy to find. Teenagers might seek information on the internet, but there is no guarantee it will be appropriate, accurate, or helpful. Stigma often discourages teens from seeking help in person. With this in mind, UNICEF conceptualized USupportMe, an innovative new way to give adolescents online, on-demand psychological support. USupportMe aims to connect teenagers with free mental health services via the internet, filling the service gap and helping governments provide mental health support for their young people.

Once fully operational, USupportMe will provide online, on-demand information and counselling. Peer-volunteers, psychologists, and professional counselors—trained in evidence-based best practices—will only be a text away. Teens are already active online; this new approach aims to reach them via the digital platforms they’re already familiar with.

USupportMe will cover common adolescent topics, such as bullying, relationships, stress, anxiety, body image, conflicts, and peer pressures. The platform will also offer support for substance abuse, violence, depression, self-harm, and suicide. This allows teenagers to receive quality mental and psychological assistance in the comfort of their homes, whenever they need it. The goal is to increase access to mental health and psychosocial support by offering services and information, digitally.

Elements of the USupportMe platform have been piloted in several countries across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where it was recognized as a ground-breaking new approach to mental health services. In Kazakhstan, it is estimated that more than 500,000 parents and adolescents participated in online support sessions covering common mental health topics for teenagers, including cyberbullying and stress management.  In Ukraine, peer counsellors and psychologists conducted more than 5,000 online counselling sessions with adolescents. Thousands more used the USupportMe website to access resources. Lessons learned from the pilot are contributing to improving the USupportMe platform by combining and developing some key features, including aspects such as demand generation, which would help achieve scale and give USupportMe the power to improve the lives teenagers everywhere.

During the pilot, USupportMe proved to be a great conduit between teens and mental health services. But the platform could give millions of people access to support without stigma. UNICEF is primed to take this innovation to new markets. To expand USupportMe, UNICEF will use a four-point approach focused on creating partnerships, building capacity, harnessing a large pool of resources, and creating an enabling environment. There is already growing demand for psychological support programmes across the EU—why not bring this innovation to as many people as possible? It’s time to bring psychological support to adolescents via the platforms they prefer. Given COVID-19 and the world’s current unpredictability, these services seem to be needed now more than ever.

USupportMe is part of the Mental Health and Psychosocial Wellbeing Portfolio at UNICEF. The Global Innovation Portfolios align technical and financial resources to promising projects that can accelerate results for children in key focus areas, including Learning, Water and Sanitation, Maternal and Child Health, Climate Change, Gender Equality, Youth, and Immunization. By bringing these proven solutions to more countries, UNICEF’s Office of Innovation strives to strategically and efficiently address some of the greatest and most pressing challenges facing children. 

Continue exploring the Office of Innovation website to learn about the many innovative solutions and technologies the team is bringing to scale.