Publish date: 10 October 2022

West London NHS Trust is piloting a ground-breaking research project which uses a digital intervention called Imaginator to help prevent self-harm among children and young adults.

Self-harm can have a devastating impact on people's lives and in the UK it affects around 20% of young people.

Currently, therapies for self-harm treat the underlying mental health difficulties, which can be helpful, but this can also be time consuming, involving many hours of therapy.

There are also young people who may not need this and would benefit from a shorter, targeted intervention, specifically for self-harm.

With this in mind, West London NHS Trust has teamed up with Imperial College London to launch the Imaginator intervention study.

The study involves a type of therapy called 'Functional Imagery Therapy' which is delivered over three sessions.

The training uses 'mental imagery' (seeing things in your mind) to help young people manage emotions and shift their focus from self-harm to other behaviours that are more in line with their goals.

Imagining something makes us more likely to act on it and the purpose of the study is to find out whether imagining more positive behaviours through the use of the app and accompanying therapy, helps young people find alternatives to self-harm when experiencing emotional distress.

The app is designed to help people practice using mental imagery techniques during and after the therapy sessions to help them feel more motivated to achieve their goals.

Stage 1 of the study, which is being funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), involved co-designing the app with young people with experience of self-harm. The co-design process was critical for ensuring the app meets the expectations and needs of young people engaging in the therapy. This stage has been completed and the app is currently being coded by developers. The aim is for the first version of the app to be completed in the next couple of weeks.

The second stage of the study will involve recruiting clinicians within the Trust to identify patients who are interested in engaging in the Imaginator intervention. The intervention will involve completing three face-to-face therapy sessions followed by a phone call support and continued use of the app. During the face-to-face therapy participants will be shown how to use the app to help them practice the mental imagery techniques learned in the sessions.

As part of the study participants will also be asked to complete three research assessments and will be reimbursed for their time spent on these.

Martina Di Simplicio, a Trust consultant and chief investigator on the study, said: "Imaginator is the first intervention that focuses on targeting self-harm early on, before it becomes too severe. It has been exciting working with young people on developing the app. We hope it will be an empowering tool that young people keep using even after the therapy ends."

The team behind the Imaginator intervention study explained they're looking for clinicians working specifically in CAMHS and adult services to help identify patients aged 12 to 25 to take part. At the moment the study is exclusive to West London NHS Trust, but if it's successful, there is potential for it to be rolled out to larger areas.

If you would like to know more about the Imaginator intervention study or perhaps you're a Trust clinician and think one of your patients may be eligible, contact Emily, an Academic Clinical Fellow on the study, on her email address: