Writing with mental health in mind

Mark Avery writing for the Education and Skills Funding Agency:

The internet can be an intimidating place for people with mental health issues. I should know. For as I can remember I’ve been going into battle daily with the beast known as depression.

The simplest tasks can become difficult when the ‘black dog’ has its grip on you because you can’t focus and, at best, you feel physically and mentally sluggish. My symptoms are very mild in comparison to some other people, but I’m not alone.

Today in the UK, approximately 1 in 4 people have a mental health condition and around 10% of people will experience depression in their lifetime. This thought stays with me during my day-to-day work as the apprenticeship service’s lead content designer. I feel that having this kind of condition can help me to empathise with others in a similar position.

Notes

If you have mental health issues and cannot easily access the information you need, it is likely you will have increased feelings of anxiety. One of the things I wanted to do when I took on my role was to use my experiences to ensure our services are accessible for people with mental health conditions.

Making services accessible to all

I believe this is where great content can help. It has the power to create order out of unholy confusion. And, meeting user needs is the simplest way to make the potentially stressful experience of managing apprenticeships into an easy one.

We have done this by making sure:

  • people can understand our content – we have always used the simplest language possible
  • people can find information quickly – the content gets to the point straight away
  • users can do what they need to do easily – user journeys are intuitive and involve the minimum number of steps necessary
  • we make sure our pages don’t contain any unnecessary distractions and that all the information on there meets identifiable user needs
  • we use personalised adaptive content once users have logged in to their accounts so they only see information relevant to them
  • we don’t make assumptions about our users – we always explain terms and concepts that users might not be familiar with
  • our content works visually, including links and buttons – the content is easy to see and read, and is scalable on different devices
  • we have done rigorous research and testing of the accessibility of our content to ensure it meets accessibility standards

Trying to understand the problems people face

However, I’ve found there are still significant gaps in our knowledge and understanding of how mental health impacts the online user experience. And, this needs to change, especially considering the huge number of people who suffer from mental health conditions.

Let’s consider the kind of issues people with cognitive impairment might face:

  • short term memory loss
  • lack of concentration and attention
  • difficulties processing lots of information
  • poor hand-eye coordination
  • slow thinking
  • trouble making decisions
  • lack of motivation
  • impatience
  • constant need for validation

And, these problems often increase when sufferers are stressed.

Getting involved

Beyond the common sense basics of good content, what else we can do to improve our services for people with cognitive impairment issues? Honestly, I don’t know.

So, consider this an appeal to anyone out there who suffers from a mental health condition to get involved with user testing. Tell us your frustrations, what we’re doing right, and what we need to do to make things better.

You can get in touch with me, in confidence, at mark.avery@sfa.bis.gov.uk. I’d love to hear from you!

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