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Writing with mental health in mind

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Assisted digital, Content design

Selection of Post-it notes on a wall

The internet can be an intimidating place for people with mental health issues. I should know. For as long 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. 

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 I’d love to hear from you! 

Co-written with Pete Kowalczyk

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  1. Comment by HW posted on

    I have just finished reading your article and found it really interesting.

    I have a condition which leads to many of the symptoms that you describe. I hadn’t fully realised the additional effort that is now required for me to read and understand written material until I came to apply for a new job.

    As part of my recruitment I had to complete a comprehension test. I had excelled at English at school and was confident that I would ace this so I refused any reasonable adjustment.

    When I came to do the test I struggled! I found that there was just too much text for me to read and understand in the allotted time. And the countdown clock in the corner ramped up my anxiety! I got timed out of a question that I knew I should have been able to answer.

    Once I had finished the test I felt thoroughly miserable. It was forcing me to acknowledge a level of impact on my performance, and I wasn’t willing to accept it.

    This lead to me to do some research. I found a particularly interesting study that suggested short paragraphs with double spacing made text much easier for sufferers to digest. (A style that you will notice I already used in my own writing). I wished that I had learned this sooner and could have asked for some kind of adjustment to the comprehension exercise. Luckily I still got the position but the experience has taught me a lot.

    Thank you for writing about such an poorly understood issue.

  2. Comment by Lorena Sutherland posted on

    Really good post, Mark, and an excellent reminder that accessibility and comprehension depend on so many factors - not just the obvious things like physical impairment and reading age.

    Thanks for sharing your personal story too. It's good to see how you're able to bring your whole self to your work, which I'm sure will benefit your users (and you too, I hope).

  3. Comment by Stefanos Sym - user researcher posted on

    Thanks for the great article Mark, it's really useful to think and design with mental health in mind. I believe the actions you've taken based on your experience and from the experience of others is going to enable people with mental health access our service in an less stressful and more soothing way.

    Overall we currently focus more on the physical aspect of disabilities when designing for the web whereas we need to put greater effort to understand people with mental health issues or the so called "invisible disabilities" to cater for their needs and empower them.

    Keep up the good work!