Empowering the supporters of people experiencing mental ill-health

By Will, co-founder of Bolster

Hands up if someone close to you has suffered from mental ill-health. Me too. And my co-founder Ben. In fact, pretty much everyone we both know has a brother, sister, parent, partner or friend who has experienced a period of mental ill-health.

This isn’t surprising. Statistically, one in four people suffer mental ill-health at some point in their life, meaning every extended family and friendship group will contain at least one person who has experienced some form of distress. If you’re lucky enough to have avoided mental ill-health yourself, you will very likely have a loved one who hasn’t been so fortunate.

If so, you’ll know how hard it can be to support someone through the turbulence of mental ill-health. To see someone you love struggle with depression or anxiety, harm themselves, or suffer periodic episodes over which they have little control.

It can be hard to talk about, even more difficult to know where to turn, and seemingly impossible to tackle. As a family member or friend, you can feel responsible, resentful, guilty or rejected, perhaps all at the same time. You yourself can develop mental health issues, due to the stresses and strains of caregiving. And given most people still don’t talk about mental ill-health particularly openly, it can feel like you are all alone in the struggle.

But you are not alone. If prevalence rates in the US hold more generally, there are 97 million parents of 10–19 year olds suffering from anxiety in the developed world, 40 million whose child self harms, and 8 million parents of a child with an eating disorder. If you include partners, friends, siblings and other family, the number quickly approaches a billion people going through the same lived experiences.

However, the services and networks that exist for supporters are often fragmented, informal and secondary to services for sufferers themselves. While charities like Young Minds, Student Minds and The Mix have fantastic helplines and forums for parents and friends, there is no community for supporters. Where in-person peer support groups do exist, they are organised informally and only offer intermittent support. Online forums and Facebook groups provide a great resource for some, but can be unreliable, hard to find and, if not carefully monitored, actively damaging. The net result is millions of people desperate to help a loved one but without the knowledge and connections to do so.

This is the problem that we are setting out to solve through Bolster, a new online community for people supporting someone they love.

We want to empower the friends and family of those suffering from mental ill-health, giving them the practical guidance and emotional reassurance that can only come from a community of people with the same lived experiences. A safe destination, so that people know where to turn when someone they know falls ill. A community of supporters who, together, tackle mental illness in those they love.

In doing so, we want to learn from the best online communities and draw on the best research. We have been inspired by new communities like Mush, the local social network for mums, and the growth of established brands like Bumble. And we have been lucky enough to spend time with a number of world-leading academics, including Janet Treasure from the Maudsley, Nicola Byrom from King's and Farhana Mann from UCL. As we develop Bolster, we hope to continue to work with them, and apply the lessons from their research to our platform.

Our vision is for a world where every parent, child, sibling, friend and partner feels equipped and supported to best care for a loved one in need. Join us to help make it a reality.

There are lots of ways you can help:

  1. Sign up here to join Bolster and follow our progress.

  2. Tell your friends about us and share with anyone you know supporting someone through the turbulence of mental ill-health. 

  3. Come to one of our upcoming events for people supporting someone experiencing mental ill-health.

  4. Tell us about your experiences by filling out our 3 minute survey

  5. Invest in Bolster. We are looking for investors for our upcoming seed round. Click here to email us directly.

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Thanks to the Zinc team, in particular Dr Rachel Carey, Ella Goldner and Paul Kirby, for their comments on this article and their support for Ben and I as we have developed the concept for Bolster. Zinc is a new company builder to create businesses to solve the world’s biggest problems, and has been invaluable in our development.

Note: We amended this post to better reflect the services provided by Young Minds, Student Minds and The Mix