Better Mental Health Fund: Blackpool

Blackpool is a seaside town in the North West of England with an estimated population of 140,000 people. It has a significantly smaller percentage of ethnic minority groups compared to the North West as a whole and to England and Wales. It is one of the most deprived places in England.

Men and women in Blackpool have the lowest life expectancy in any local authority in England. Depression is significantly higher in Blackpool than the national average and it has some of the highest rates of prescribing antidepressants in England.

The Covid pandemic brought many challenges to Blackpool, whose wealth and subsequent employment opportunities are largely derived from the services offered to holiday makers and other visitors.

For a full description of local needs and assets: Blackpool Joint Strategic Needs Assessment

How was the Better Mental Fund used?

Public health drew on established knowledge such as the Blackpool Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and carefully considered what could be achieved in the timeframe, to balance ambition with realistic expectations.

Projects were developed in partnership with stakeholders from the Blackpool Mental Health Partnership Board, with all projects meeting an identified gap. They included:

  • Working with the local Youth Council to co-produce and lead the design of a campaign to raise awareness and tackle stigma
  • Mental health in-reach for young people, taking clinical services into the community
  • ChatHealth App for school nursing – provision of an anonymous text service for young people
  • Men’s Sheds initiative, focusing on creating spaces for men to find friendship and emotional support and reduce loneliness
  • Debt and welfare advice through Citizens Advice Blackpool and support to manage debt more effectively
  • Social prescribing initiatives to promote wellbeing
  • Mental health and suicide prevention training – skilling up frontline workers and communities to better recognise signs of poor mental health and reduce stigma
  • Digital inclusion project, building skills and providing equipment to encourage people to engage in activities and connect with others
  • Peer support groups for people with existing conditions and challenges.

Digital Health App: ChatHealth

Through the Better Mental Health Fund, Blackpool Council resourced the development and set up of a digital health text messaging app called ChatHealth.

Through it, young people can contact a school nurse directly and ask any health questions they want, with a view to improving their knowledge about mental health and wellbeing, increasing their confidence in making changes, and promoting their emotional health.

Heralded as a potential game changer, the app has been developed in line with principles set out by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

The development phase of the app brought young people together to design a survey to understand what potential users wanted, how the app should work, and how it should be branded and marketed.

The automated responses provided by the app have been reviewed and refined by young people to make sure that they are appropriate in content and tone.

The app also allows for feedback from users such as ‘Did we help?’ and ‘Do you feel better?’

There were some challenges in developing the app. Safeguarding issues needed significant consideration, as did the steps taken to ensure that the young people who used the app could remain anonymous. Through working in partnership and consulting young people, these issues have now been resolved.

The ownership and running of the app, including paying for its licence, have now passed from Blackpool Council to the NHS Trust. They have agreed to keep it going as part of their commitment to developing school-based wellbeing services, flagged as a priority in a recent review of school nursing.

Digital Inclusion for Loneliness and Social Isolation

Blackpool’s Digital Inclusion for Loneliness and Social Isolation programme offers tailored support for people who are lonely or socially isolated and digitally excluded, both in terms of IT skills and access to equipment. Its purpose is to use IT to help people engage in social activities, connect to other people, and make friends.

Participants are found using existing networks, by word of mouth as well as through promotions in public amenities. Once people are signed up, they can borrow IT equipment through public libraries.

An initial chat follows with a worker from Groundwork, who supports the participants, one to one and in groups, in gaining skills in how to use IT. They also build participants’ confidence in reaching out to friends and family as well as stepping into new activities and making new contacts.

Once they have grasped the basics, participants are encouraged to develop their skills, as appropriate, by accessing training elsewhere, including that provided by Adult and Community Learning.

Alongside the core elements of the project, library service volunteers are trained and supported to become digital ambassadors to promote the scheme as widely possible and to lead additional group sessions with new recruits.

What is the impact?

Being a recipient of the Better Mental Health Fund was warmly welcomed by stakeholders in Blackpool, as many previous wellbeing-related projects had come to an end in recent years. A colleague noted that prior to the Fund, “the will was there, the funding wasn’t”.  The extra investment has refreshed the commitment to working with vulnerable and marginalised communities. Crucially, principles of co-production have been further embedded as a result, notably with children and young people.

The Better Mental Health Fund was used to support organisations to pilot new services or add value to existing services.

“The funding is acting as a catalyst”, said an interviewee in relation to developing work with children and young people. It has demonstrably helped build local partnership working. As one interviewee noted, “It has given the Trust confidence to fund the Chat Health App going into the future”. This might not have happened without Better Mental Health Fund resources.

Learning points

  1. Implementing broad-based community-focused programmes at pace is challenging for systems when their focus is elsewhere. On this occasion, responding to the Covid pandemic was drawing significant energy and effort across the entire health and social care system.
  2. The programme was ambitious with several diverse projects. Such a high number of projects has created significant challenges in terms of initial set up, procurement, relationship building, and subsequent project management.  If they were given this opportunity again, they would focus on “delivering fewer projects, taking more risks, a bit more innovation”.
  3. Where progress was made quickly, it was because of existing goodwill and trust between Blackpool Council and partner organisations, including voluntary and community sector agencies. This was especially the case for organisations that were not used to being commissioned outside the usual processes and governance; this was a necessity in this case given the compressed timescales.
  4. Despite the demands and challenges of operating in the throes of a pandemic, the voluntary sector mobilised quickly and effectively.
  5. Providers who had a clear understanding of what was expected from them adapted quickly to the challenges of implementation.  
  6. It was suggested that there is a risk that short-term funding, unless properly connected to longer-term investment plans, can result in limited positive impact for excluded and vulnerable communities and might cause harm, although such fears were not yet supported by evidence.
  7. In the context of reductions to public health funding in recent years, keeping momentum for public mental health initiatives will be challenging, though plans are in place to look at the sustainability of some of the projects. Funding for ChatHealth, for example, will be picked up by the NHS as part of the transformation of school nursing services which demonstrated how the Better Mental Health Fund has created opportunities to test innovation.

The Digital Inclusion, Men’s Sheds and Chat Health projects have been selected for local evaluation, reviewing inputs, activities and outputs. 

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