‘Grandminds’– A Mental Health Matching Service bringing Together the Over 60s and those Suffering with Mental Health Issues

“Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s an illness, and there should be no distinction.” – Michelle Obama


What is ‘Grandminds’?

‘Grandminds’ is a scheme that matches those suffering with mental health issues with volunteers over 60 so that they can discuss their challenges with a wise and experienced listener. The idea originates from a very successful similar scheme in Zimbabwe (see footnotes section).1


What is the problem ‘Grandminds’ is trying to help solve?

The UK has high rates of mental health issues and this increase has been a consistent trend over recent years and has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and cost of living crisis. For example, the ONS estimated that a shocking one in five adults said they experienced some form of depression during the coronavirus pandemic, which was double the pre-pandemic numbers. 2,3,4

There is also a worrying lack of capacity within the health system to tackle this problem, as the charity Mind has notably highlighted.5

At the same time there exists a palpable issue of loneliness in the UK – particularly amongst older people. For example, Age UK has estimated that ‘if we don’t tackle loneliness by 2026 there will be 2 million people over 50 in England who will often feel lonely’.6

Britain is also becoming an ever-aging society so it’s likely this rate of loneliness amongst seniors will only increase further over the coming years.


How would ‘Grandminds’ practically be delivered?

‘Grandminds’ should be delivered in an agile and iterative way, beginning with a small pilot version and growing from there as feedback is gathered and improvements made. A small unit within Public Health England would be best placed to lead this work, collaborating closely with charity partners in the mental health space, and it would be helpful to give this unit some operational independence so they could function in the most agile and innovative way.

Preliminary Research

Research on similar models – such as Age UK’s ‘befriending service’ – would be a useful starting point for the unit. Moreover, bringing in expert consultants who have piloted successful similar schemes in other countries – such as the scheme in Zimbabwe – would also be beneficial.

In addition, conducting relevant policy tests – such as the Family Test and Health Impact Assessment– would be helpful in the early stages of developing the scheme to ensure it’s sufficiently robust, as would reading DCMS’ loneliness paper to ensure joined up, strategic thinking underpins the scheme from its very outset.7, 8, 9

Volunteer Recruitment

• The first stage of the scheme would involve recruiting a team of over 60s from across the country. Marketing could be done through channels the over 60s often engage with – such as the health service, relevant charities, community groups, newspapers and magazines.

• Marketing would emphasise the opportunity to help someone in need and to make a difference. However, it would also highlight the benefits to volunteers themselves, such as meeting new people with different backgrounds and developing a new skill (in the fundamentals of counselling). The scheme could also consider whether its volunteers would be given access to discounts at retailers and other incentives like tax breaks could be explored.

• Interested volunteers would be required to fill in a basic application form, particularly evidencing any times they had successfully counselled someone struggling with difficult feelings (e.g. low level anxiety or depression). They would also need to agree to show sensitivity and respect to a range of issues (e.g. LGBT) and be able to describe a specific time they have done this successfully.

• Administrative staff would ensure that volunteers diversity reflects the UK to help the scheme meet the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty.

• Vetting would be done on the volunteers and volunteers would undergo some basic training in counselling but also be encouraged to use their own style and experiences where appropriate. Training should be designed around the best data available on user needs and the most effective interventions (e.g. leveraging survey data from relevant charities, Public Health England etc).

The Matching Process

In terms of delivery the key elements would be as follows:

• Users would submit some basic information such as hobbies and interests, to help with the matching process. They would also need to be vetted to ensure they were not suffering from issues beyond the ability of the scheme to deal with, such as suicide, and agree to certain boundaries within the call – for example to not discuss extreme mental health issues.

• Volunteers and users would both be given a number that they could ring to put them through to each other – this would ensure proper safeguarding as no contact details would be shared. It would also be more accessible than a purely online service, which some – particularly more elderly individuals – could struggle to access.

• Users could also submit anonymous feedback on their experiences speaking with volunteers and highly rated and more experienced volunteers could be asked to help lead on training for other volunteers. Similarly, a ‘badge’ system rewarding time in service would help maintain the motivation of volunteers (e.g. bronze, silver, gold levels) and these different levels could grant access to different benefits.

• As part of delivery, there could be a 1 year review of the scheme conducted by an expert – but independent – organisation, such as the charity Mind, to consider its effectiveness and where improvements could be made. Surveying users at the start and end of the scheme would also be an effective means of measuring progress, using a recognised set of questions like the NHS depression and anxiety questionnaire.10

Marketing and Stakeholders

The marketing of the scheme would leverage already existing mental health related channels – GP surgeries, mental health charities and so forth – and I have included artwork in this submission as a visual example of what the marketing might look like. In addition to these more conventional approaches, the scheme would also host its own podcast series as demonstrated by the example podcast I have published here and is available on Spotify and Apple podcasts: https://www.buzzsprout.com/2104685/share

Baroness Cavendish – former policy advisor to David Cameron – has already expressed her support for a similar scheme to this in Zimbabwe, so could be an effective champion for the scheme in Parliament helping to secure buy-in and continuity for it in her role as a non-affiliated peer. Indeed, this scheme has the advantage of being one that is likely to be agreeable to any government thereby increasing the likelihood of its longevity. Maria Caulfield – the minister responsible for mental health – would also be the key government stakeholder promoting the scheme.

Risks and Mitigations

Risk 1 – volunteers could feel they lack the expertise to deal with the issues they are hearing and feel overwhelmed by them.

Mitigations – volunteers would be given training on how to spot warning signs if someone requires more extensive mental health support and where to signpost them to. Due to the difficult content they may hear, it will also be important to ensure volunteers have access to professional support where they need this. There would also be a more informal forum for volunteers to speak to each other and confidentially share advice and tips.

Risk 2 – some volunteers could not speak in a sensitive and proper way to users, damaging the scheme’s reputation.

Mitigations – The first session a volunteer undertakes could have a more experienced mental healthcare professional on the call to ensure the volunteer is behaving with appropriate sensitivity from the outset.


What would be the impact of ‘Grandminds’?

The benefits of ‘Grandminds’ include but are not limited to:

• Improving wellbeing for both users and volunteers. This was evidenced by the Zimbabwe scheme where researchers found that after six months, a group that had seen the grandmother volunteers had ‘significantly lower symptoms of depression compared to the group that underwent conventional treatment’.

• In turn helping to bring those with out of work, due to poor mental health, back into employment, thereby helping with the UK’s productivity challenge and simultaneously reducing the government’s welfare bill.11

• Reducing strain on already over-stretched mental health services.

• Decreasing loneliness amongst the over 60s.

• Improving intergenerational connections.

• Any data collected on user’s needs and experiences being anonymised and made openly available in line with best policy making practice.

I wholeheartedly believe that ‘Grandminds’ should be piloted to improve life in the UK for families, communities and the population as a whole.

So let’s take on anxiety and “kufungisisa” (the local Zimbabwean word for depression) and make this scheme into a reality!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for considering this submission.


Link to ‘Grandminds podcast episode: https://www.buzzsprout.com/2104685/share


1) https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20181015-how-one-bench-and-a-team-of-grandmothers-can-beat-depression

2) https://blog.ons.gov.uk/2021/05/05/are-we-facing-a-mental-health-pandemic/#:~:text=TheOfficeforNationalStatisticsONShasbeen,eventsonpeoplespersonalwell-beingandmentalhealth

3) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/coronavirusanddepressioninadultsgreatbritain/june2020

4) https://www.bacp.co.uk/news/news-from-bacp/2022/8-september-cost-of-living-crisis-survey-shows-impact-on-mental-health/

5) https://www.bing.com/search?q=Mental+health+crisis+care+services+‘under-resourced+understaffed+and+overstretched’+-+Mind.&cvid=14256ffa5f39411294b55806ea3b574d&aqs=edge..69i57j69i60j69i11004.291j0j1&pglt=163&FORM=ANNAB1&PC=U531

6) https://editorial.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/loneliness/loneliness-report_final_2409.pdf

7) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/family-test-assessing-the-impact-of-policies-on-families

8) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-impact-assessment-evidence-on-health

9) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-connected-society-a-strategy-for-tackling-loneliness