The UK government has pledged an ambitious programme of revolutionising mental health over the next three years, seeing all mental health service providers becoming digitised and fully integrated with other health and care services by 2024. The scale of a mental health epidemic is real — with the UK’s population of 67 million, one in four people will experience a mental health illness at least once in their lives, that’s 16 million people. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that by 2030, over two million people will experience mental health problems in the UK alone. Mental health problems already stand as one of the main global causes of overall disease.
One thing is certain, mental health tech that is deliverable on a large scale is both desirable and necessary. Here, we’ll discuss the benefits of the healthcare system becoming more digitised and the impact this will have on mental health care.
In 2016, Jeremy Hunt, the then health secretary, acknowledged that child mental health services are the “biggest single area of weakness” in the NHS — less than 1% of all NHS spending is on the mental health of children and young people. And it isn’t just young people that are suffering. Mental health charity Mind conducted research across 42 regions in the UK and found that mental health spending varies widely across regions in England, with a two-fold difference in spending between regions.
The vast need for mental health services means that waiting lists are long, which for some people’s mental health can be devastating, or even in some cases fatal. According to the Independent last year, over 122,000 patients seeking mental health care are being kept on ‘hidden waiting lists’ for over eight weeks to see a doctor again after their initial appointment, described as a ‘hidden sucker punch’.
In order to help support those on long waiting lists, health tech like myGP, an app providing various online healthcare services such as NHS prescription delivery, can be essential for those who might not have capacity or may struggle to leave their house. Such technology is also beneficial for:
It can also be useful for signposting to alternative community points of care when there is availability, rather than to your usual GP. This can reduce these waiting times by allocating appointments in a smart and efficient way, particularly in areas of high unmet clinical needs as well as offering alternative digital therapies so that mild and manageable cases can be removed from the waiting lists to make way for more severe cases, fast tracking patients with higher need who perhaps require specialist or more intensive treatment.
The development of this health tech app can help people access mental health services that they might not have been able to prior — this is particularly beneficial for hard to reach communities including ethnic minorities, locations with a geographic disadvantage, older individuals, and young people who are particularly affected by the mental health services operating at almost full capacity.
myGP commented: “Online repeat prescription ordering is up 225% since May last year as well as transaction volume and overall features by 167%. This peaked in March at almost 27 million transactions.
“Demand for healthcare will always exist and a demand for easily accessible healthcare will remain. However, moving forward, it is about patient choice as each patient is different — many will adapt and be comfortable with a digital first healthcare approach whereas many others may prefer in person GP visit. Our platform delivers options to both healthcare professionals and patients for how they’d prefer assessments and appointments to take place.”
Digitally enabled modes of therapy and online resources can be effective in supporting mental health and contributing to recovery in the population. According to the NHS, digital delivery of psychological remedies can be particularly suited to talking therapies, peer support, and psychoeducation. Big White Wall provides a safe place to seek anonymous support 24/7. Users can share their experiences and express themselves in images by making a ‘brick’ in the wall, as well as accessing guided group support courses on topics including managing anxiety and depression, positive thinking, and problem solving. There is also a selection of self-administered clinical tests and trained counsellors. According to statistics by the app, 95 per cent of users felt better and 73 per cent shared an issue when using the app for the first time.
These effective platforms offering 24/7 access to support ranging from one-to-one therapy sessions and peer communities as well as. This brings us to our next point.
Mental health tech can also help reduce levels of distress by providing a clinically safe online space. It’s been long established that there is stigma around mental health, with a constant battle to normalise illnesses and seeking treatment. This combined with mental health services being historically underfunded, stigmatised, and fragmented can many patients feel discouraged, embarrassed, or frightened to seek help, which can cause a lot of harm to the individual in question.
According to annual Google search data, there were many regions attempting to self-diagnose depression and anxiety, searching for terms such as ‘am I depressed?’ and ‘do I have anxiety?’, with 12.4% of Canterbury, 10.7% of Cambridge, and 9.4% of Oxford searching for variants of self-diagnosis terms. As mentioned before, health tech like myGP offering video consultations makes health care more accessible and increases the probability of someone who is struggling to reach out — would these statistics of regional searches be as high if health tech was developed further?
Appointments and services can take place anywhere at any time and might be a milestone for people who’ve previously avoided seeking care in the past.
With health tech proving beneficial to society, this will encourage more innovative apps covering a wider range of needs for different mental illnesses to get funding and be created. For example, there’s a myriad of apps existing that incorporate proven techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance commitment therapy (ACT). PanicShield was created as a visual aid to help someone cope in an anxiety or panic attack by breathing in time to calming patterns; notOK is a suicide prevention app which allows users to activate a notification when their support network is needed; and apps for people who suffer obsessive compulsive disorder such as nOCD, which includes mindfulness and exposure response prevention treatment with clinically-supported guidance, weekly tests to assess the severity of the disorder, and motivational support.
With the success of existing apps, we’re certain to see new and imaginative ways to help people suffering mental illnesses.