The man who never lets a cry for help go unanswered
When Jimmy heard about a girl who ended her own life after being bullied, he wanted to design a system that allowed young people to reach out in times of need. He developed ChatHealth, a nurse-led SMS helpline service that ensures no cry for help ever goes unanswered.
“Four years ago we trialled ChatHealth in three high schools.Now, that service will soon reach nearly one million young people. It’s been an amazing effort by everyone involved but there is still plenty to do,” Jimmy enthuses. We meet him to talk about the Digital Lab and the text messaging service known as ChatHealth.
Jimmy Endicott and his team have spent the last few years setting up and delivering a unique text messaging service, delivered by school nurses offering support and advice to young people at their point of need. This all started when Jimmy got a job in healthcare working as a communications manager, dealing with everything from organising event communications to everyday press releases. After a chance meeting with a school nurse he saw the potential for an exciting initiative. The nurse had told him that they were struggling to connect with pupils in the most up-to-date ways. “To see us”, she said “pupils might have to go and ask at reception and then wait outside the clinic room. Sometimes they are just too embarrassed to do it.” Jimmy thought that there must be an easier way and that’s when discussions around a text messaging service started. He said, “A lot of schools are now embracing the use of mobile phones and as young people are always on their phones, reaching out to them and connecting in this way seemed like an obvious thing to do.”
He put a proposal together, the idea being to set up a service where pupils could seek the help of school nurses via an anonymous text messaging service. This anonymity would allow pupils to freely ask questions without fear of judgement or ridicule. Jimmy said, “Texting is such an easy form of communication. Young people can simply text things like…‘I’m feeling really down today’ or ‘I’m getting bullied, what should I do?’” The reply from the school nurses initiates a conversation, one that perhaps would never have previously happened. This conversation could help a teenager deal with the distress of bullying or intervene at an early stage of depression. Shortly after Jimmy started the service a teenage girl in a nearby school ended her own life after being bullied. This made him more determined to create an effective point of contact for as many young people as possible who find themselves in need of help and proper support.
The pilot scheme was rolled out across three high schools in 2012. It performed better than anyone expected with a large uptake of students using the service. ChatHealth has now been taken up by around 25 health organizations around the UK and can be accessed by nearly one million young people. Some school nurses were, at first, a little skeptical about taking a more digital approach but more and more now recognize it can be helpful to do their job across multiple platforms. Jimmy said, “We are not trying to take away face-to-face consultation. That is, and always will be a really important form of communication. The messaging service is often the first step, the early acknowledgement, the start of a conversation.” Teenagers quickly adopted the new confidential way to discuss health advice and the nurses were impressed by the uptake and honesty from the students. Jimmy said, “They were texting about all aspects of healthcare including mental health, contraception, and substance misuse. Anonymity means it’s easier for them to talk about sensitive or difficult issues.” The nurses are also able to signpost the young person on to other appropriate healthcare services if necessary or offer to see the young person face-to-face. ChatHealth helps to ensure no message ever goes unanswered, even out of hours automated texts signpost alternative sources of help.
As well as the messaging service Jimmy is also fronting a Digital Lab initiative which is concentrating on the development of other areas that embrace the use of technology when delivering health services. “We’ve piloted a virtual clinic that cuts travelling time for both patients and community nurses. We are also using peer-to-peer online forums chaired by a nurse – there are lots of other exciting ways for patients to access health advice. Some of it is in its infancy stage, but it’s all very exciting.”
Jimmy’s focus and passion has helped ChatHealth to expand and grow into the service it is today. It is easy to see how his infectious energy and enthusiasm is driving ChatHealth to make a difference, replacing despair with hope, giving young people a life line that could change their lives for the better. The long-term impact of the professional advice given by nurses is often difficult to measure by statistics, but it is safe to say that what started out as a trial in just three schools, is now making a huge difference to young people who previously may have suffered in silence.