Human-centred moonshots: Putting people at the heart of mental health tech

Today we launch our report Empowering students and clinicians with data, the culmination of a two-year partnership between Shift and Alphabet’s moonshot factory, X. We took on this project in 2018 based on a deep commitment to and passion for supporting the mental health of people across the UK, and as part of our ambition to ensure that mental health science and tech are built on human principles.

We can hire more and more counsellors, but it’s like putting a funnel into the end of a firehose.

Student Mental Health Researcher

As part of this work, a large focus was on student mental health, looking at the role of technology and data in supporting a crisis faced by both students and universities. At the time of the research, student mental health was itself a global pandemic, with diagnosis, under-diagnosis and low access to care at critical rates.

Now, we publish this work as Covid-19 exacerbates the crisis, putting pressure on entire college systems, as well as on students and clinicians themselves. The NUS recently reported that more than 50% of students in the UK say their mental health has declined since the Covid pandemic began.

By focusing on the experiences and perspectives of students and clinicians with experience of college mental health systems, our aim was to understand the current dynamics at play and to pinpoint valuable roles for emerging technology.

I can lie to you and me about what I am feeling, but I can’t change what is happening in my brain.


Our research benefitted from having a focal point in Project Amber, X’s early-stage moonshot which was exploring the validity of an objective measure for mental health. This hook provided a rich vehicle for exploration and allowed us to have deep, exploratory and intimate conversations about what’s working and what’s broken in student mental health.

At the heart of what we found is a deep need for innovation and a vital role for bringing humans and tech together in one of the world’s most intimate spaces – the counselling room. What we heard from students and clinicians alike was that it’s vital to stop operating in the binary. We must explore instead the role of both human and machine, both subjective and objective, both relationship and measurement. Innovators in student mental health must embrace plurality and accept that progress can look like more than one thing.

The recommendations surfaced by our research, shown below, speak to this mindset. They underline the need to bring data into the mental health support space from different sources, in different but complementary ways, and – crucially – giving students and clinicians a sense of shared control.

Overall, this work is a welcome reminder of the importance of deep, meaningful engagement with the public in mental health research and technology. The team at X embraced the voices and complexity of their users throughout, building these into their multi-disciplinary approach and learning. This is of course something we hope to see more of across the sector and continue to support in our own work, based on the belief that putting humans at the heart of innovation can lead to real impact – in student mental health and beyond.

You can read the full report here. We welcome your thoughts, reflections and ideas for how we could work together to put humans at the heart of mental health innovation. Please do get in touch on