A Revolution in Youth Mental Health Care
Growing up has never been easy. But over the past decade, kids and youth have been facing a mental health crisis. Between 2011 and 2018, the number of young people reporting poor mental health jumped1 from 4.2% to 9.9%, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents doubled.2 Health service providers have been struggling to keep up with such a steep increase in demand. As a result, it’s not uncommon for youth and their families to be faced with months (or even years) of waiting before they can get help.
Nobody should have to go without mental health care. Digital mental health platforms like Kids Help Phone3 are one of the most promising tools we have to address this emergency, helping to ensure that every young person is able to access support when they need it. On top of connecting users to crisis and counselling services, the Kids Help Phone website is home to hundreds of articles, quizzes, exercises, and other tools to help youth understand whatever it is they’re going through, and learn coping skills they can take with them anywhere.
The Decision Lab partnered with Kids Help Phone to reimagine the experience of accessing mental health support online. We led the redesign from inception to launch, including an intensive research process with hundreds of youth from across Canada. The TDL team also interviewed Kids Help Phone staff from across the organization (from volunteer crisis responders, to service innovation specialists, to the donor relations team), analyzed web analytics, and audited the existing website.
Through the course of our work, we transformed the old website into a comprehensive gateway — one that pioneers a new way for youth to access support. Painstakingly designed based on mountains of data, the new gateway represents the next evolution of digital mental health care, combining behavioral UX, data analytics, and user-centered design at an unprecedented scale.
Empowering youth by digitizing Stepped Care
With hundreds of thousands of youth visiting the Kids Help Phone website each month, all with different backgrounds, needs, and lived experiences, the platform has to strike a difficult balance: Making sure that users have access to an immense amount of information, at different levels of support, while ensuring that this information is still effortlessly navigable — even to a young person in distress.
Another challenge is the diversity of Kids Help Phone’s user base. The gateway serves a vast audience, encompassing everyone from elementary school–aged kids, to young adults; from newcomers to Canada, to longtime residents. Visitors hail from every corner of the country, and hold different understandings of what they’re going through, not to mention different lived experiences, different priorities, different needs, different fears. The website also serves more people than just youth looking for support: it’s also a resource for caring adults (such as parents or guardians of those youth), and for anyone who wants to know how they can help somebody else in their life through a difficult time.
TDL’s task was to design a platform that made all of these people feel seen, heard, and welcome — to empower youth to decide their own paths. This meant designing a refreshed user journey, centered on education and autonomy. In addition to providing users with all the tools they need to make informed decisions about their situation, the updated gateway would also make it as easy as possible to navigate within topics, find related topics and switch between services to find the supports that are best for them.
Our work was grounded in the principles of Stepped Care, an approach that emphasizes the importance of ensuring that users have full autonomy in determining what type of services and resources they want to use, and when. Every choice we
made throughout the
design process was in the interest of increasing user autonomy to step “up” or “down” between different intensities of support, types of services, and so on. The revamped gateway is an all-in-one mental health hub that gives youth the tools to build their mental health literacy, practice invaluable skills, and decide what actions are right for them.
Personalizing the youth mental health journey
Everyone is young at some point — but as adults, we have a habit of oversimplifying the youth experience. We roll our eyes at “teenage angst,” scoff at young users of apps like Instagram and TikTok, and complain about a generation coddled by participation trophies. It’s no surprise that many of our research participants reported feeling infantilized and misunderstood when they sought support for their mental health.
Young people in crisis want to feel heard. They want to see the richness of their experiences reflected back at them, and to talk to people who understand. They want to be connected with supports that speak to their unique situation, without minimizing or caricaturing what they’re going through.
The new gateway takes aim at these barriers by providing a more personalized, empathetic user experience. Features like the tag cloud let users filter through resources easily and quickly, making sure that they can find what they’re looking for within a few seconds of arriving on the site. In the new navbar, service tiles pave the way to each of the different types of support Kids Help Phone has on offer, organized along the Stepped Care continuum: educational resources, activities to help youth build their skills, peer-supported communities, and more.
Throughout the gateway, interactive tools invite users to submit their feedback on each resource they view, and then provide personalized recommendations based on what they have to say. Features like this empower young people to take ownership of their journey and have their voices heard, while also nudging them toward the best support available for them.
By making a vast library of resources more easily browsable, the new gateway is also helping to reduce strain on Kids Help Phone’s call-in services. When users don’t know the full range of options available to them, many end up dialing into the help line simply because it’s the most visible service on offer — not necessarily because it’s the option best suited to them.
Our updated design bridges all the different corners of the Kids Help Phone ecosystem together: if a user starts out reading an article and ends up feeling like they need more help, they have multiple pathways to more involved options, including peer support, counselling, or a crisis text line. Signposting all these potential routes ensures that every user ends up in the place where they’re most comfortable, and that they’re always able to step “up” or “down” to more or less intensive options, if they need them.
The launch of the new gateway had an immediate effect on how users engaged with Kids Help Phone: visitors are now staying on the site 29%longer, visiting 23% more pages. The refreshed platform is helping hundreds of thousands of young people each month — a safe space for youth trying to navigate a chaotic and turbulent world.
- Wiens, K., Bhattarai, A., Pedram, P., Dores, A., Williams, J., Bulloch, A., & Patten, S. (2020). A growing need for youth mental health services in Canada: examining trends in youth mental health from 2011 to 2018. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 29. https://doi.org/10.1017/s2045796020000281
- Stanton, K., & Little, S. (2022, January 22). Two years into pandemic, effects of COVID-19 on youth mental health a growing concern. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/8531246/two-years-into-pandemic-effects-of-covid-19-on-youth-mental-health-a-growing-concern/
- Get support with these mental health resources. (2022, June 1). Kids Help Phone. https://kidshelpphone.ca/