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Mental health and digital transformation: A perfect match waiting to happen?

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Mental Health Awareness week in 2020 was unlike any other. With mental health taking up – thankfully – a larger part of the discussion and with a spotlight on mental health during the COVID-19 crisis, we can now begin to see the extent of the impact mental health issues have on our society. But, while we get a better picture, we are still far from coming close to a solution. Accessibility to mental health support is impaired. Can digital transformation tackle this problem – and tackle it effectively?

On any given week, 1 in 6 people in England is dealing with a mental health problem [1]. In the last Adult psychiatric morbidity survey, 1 in 5 people reported having suicidal thoughts [1]. At the same time, the response seems to be paced to accommodate an issue that ‘happens to occur’ rather than a national problem affecting millions: only 1 in 8 people with a mental health issue is receiving treatment. The NHS target for IAPT is six weeks – after the referral from a GP. The waiting time between the first exploratory appointment and the second appointment that kickstarts the treatment is 28 days for half the patients [2]. 5.5% of the UK health research spend is budgeted for mental health – affecting 1 in 4 citizens at some point in their lives [3]. It is barely news that mental health has so far been an overlooked issue – but the question that echoes still is: Why does treatment have to be that difficult?

The most recent turn in history with the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on mental health in the UK. A recent study reported that isolation during lockdown has increased the overall levels of anxiety and depression in adults by 50% compared to the standard values [4]. One-third of employed citizens are concerned about losing their job. And the future impact has yet to unfold [5]. If the upcoming recession is even remotely similar to the 2008 crisis, the number of people of working age battling a mental health issue could rise by half a million and suicide rates could increase [5]. While the impact of poor mental health in society has been rightfully explored, the consensus towards a solution remains: Mental health issues are not only treatable – they are preventable.

There is evidence that mental health is one of the most potentially fruitful areas for digital healthcare. Studies* have shown that online treatment for a wide range of mental health issues and approaches can reach a standardised care level [6]. The benefits are multiple, both for the healthcare system and the patients: Decreased costs, security and authentication, functionality: non-invasive session recording, the same level of effectiveness as face-to-face, direct triage and crisis management. Patients have easier and quicker access to mental health services, time-sensitive issues are addressed in a timely manner regardless of the time and location of the patient.

Digital access to mental health services can also remove most barriers to seeking care and reaching a higher level of treatment and prevention [6]. The most commonly reported barriers are logistics, stigma, and limited access. Digital mental health can address all of these problems and bring patients several steps closer to seeking help. Online consultations for mental health ensure anonymity and privacy, removing the fear of being stigmatised. Unnecessary travelling, time spent waiting, and making time from family responsibilities are minimised. Patients have a single entry point to access help for mental health – a mental health professional can be well within reach. Moreover, the different communication formats available can accommodate learning disabilities, bridge language barriers, and be less triggering than a physical appointment – particularly for patients with social phobias, agoraphobia and anxiety [7].

There are private initiatives for seeking help for mental health online, however high costs in private mental health support can be discouraging – and access to these services cannot be attained by the ones who need it the most. On a socioeconomic level, the numbers speak for themselves: Socioeconomically disadvantaged children and adolescents are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems [8]. People with mental health problems are three times more likely to be in financial difficulty [9]. If a digital solution is offered by their public healthcare provider with all the benefits listed above, there is the added advantage of removing the cost and enabling equal access to mental health services. Additionally, a digital healthcare solution that enables patients to select their own mental health professional facilitates removing barriers for minority groups.

What mental health and digital healthcare have, above all, in common is versatility. Mental health providers can bend digital tools to match most approaches and use cases – and even pave the way to innovation, by discovering new ways to provide mental health support. A bright example is Livewell Southwest, the largest community health and social care enterprise in the UK, has discovered a new way of eliminating all barriers in the most critical of situations: Using the ‘Livewell Connect’ app, police officers called to a mental health emergency can immediately contact the Livewell first response team who can offer direct video support.

The society is suspiring for mental health support and the digital transformation board is set for the pieces to be placed. Mental health services can reap profound benefits from digital tools and provide much-needed help to patients in a way that matches the requirements present and is demanded from the future. Access to mental health services must be increased and digital transformation is the first step – one that is well within reach.

Ready to explore digital transformation in mental health? Contact us to learn more about how Visiba Care can support mental health professionals to go digital.

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*Wilhelm, S., Weingarden, H., Ladis, I., Braddick, V., Shin, J., & Jacobson, N. (2020). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in the Digital Age: Presidential Address. Behavior Therapy, 51(1), 1-14.

Sofia Pyrgioti

Sofia Pyrgioti

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