Can we use technology to improve mental health care?

A video by Moodscope, an online tool designed to lift the user’s mood

As a conference explores the use of technology to deliver better mental health care, Vicky Peace considers the evidence

Mental health care is already a relatively paperless NHS service. Eighty per cent of mental health organisations use electronic patient records.

So it is timely that the MindTech 2014 National Symposium (November 24, 2014) will explore how to build a faster evidence-base to support implementation of new technologies in mental health. This is a sector which is clearly ready to embrace the digital world.

From my experience, and the Qa Research evidence base, here are six things we should take into consideration.

1. Not everyone is online

The first thing I think about when considering technology or the internet is the people who will be using the services. Not everyone can or wants to be involved with the online phenomenon.

Our research into digital literacy, mainly focused on jobseekers, gave us an insight into a significant but sometimes overlooked group – people who do not feel comfortable using a computer or the internet.

For those who haven’t grown up with computers, or who have no experience of accessing the internet, going online to search for jobs was incredibly difficult and in some cases impossible without the correct support.

One of the organisations we worked with, The Tinder Foundation, provide their digital literacy course through dedicated UK online centres. They were inundated with people wishing to take their course.

There are more people who avoid computers and technology than you might first think. This initial fear is something which could prevent people accessing mental healthcare provided online or through mobile phone technology.

2. Others are immersed in the virtual community

For others with mental health conditions, the internet – particularly social media – provides an excellent platform for views to be shared and to meet other like-minded people.

We found this in studies we’ve undertaken focusing on disability and wellbeing. Research participants found not only support but an opportunity to be critiqued on their feelings and views in their online forums.

3. There is already help out there

Visit your GP and they might refer you to the services the NHS offer online. These include Beating the Blues for example, which is a course you can complete online for help with the treatment of depression and anxiety, based on cognitive behavioural therapy principles.

Stay Alive is a mobile app which has been created to support those with suicidal thoughts, or for those who are concerned about a loved one.

4. And it does make a difference

The idea of a form of mental health care being accessible to all 24/7 is an exciting one. It can provide a “way in” for those who may be at the very beginning of their treatment.

Smartphone apps like DepressionCheck, email update services such as Moodscope and the online CBT courses which I mentioned above can be extremely valuable tools.

They encourage people experiencing their first episode of mental illness to acknowledge the problem and know there is informal, easily accessible help available.

Moreover the information provided, and the understanding gained, can give someone the confidence to access further help (from a friend, family member, GP or mental health advice service such as Mind).

For others, digital services can offer “in the meantime” support. There are notoriously long waiting lists for talking therapies. Online CBT is a way to begin your treatment independently, and gives people another option.

5. Professionals are ready to embrace technology

Technology can benefit health care practitioners too. A mental health professional in Sheffield told me that online therapeutic tools were deployed fairly frequently to help service users manage their illness (for example, the Get Self Help website).

Apps and online resources are also used together with mindfulness techniques, which is a concept with growing interest in the mental health world.

6. It’s still good to talk

What about grass roots help and support for mental health? Well, the introduction of technologies such as mobile and email applications, and online CBT, are important in offering much-needed information, signposting and eventually management for a range of illnesses.

However, our research has shown that human interaction and talking can be one of the most powerful tools in minimising isolation, depression and anxiety.

For example, people who had undertaken volunteer work spoke extremely highly of the positive impact this had had on their mental illnesses.

Final thoughts

Support can be offered in more ways than one. For those who can access online services and apps, technology can help in a variety of ways.

To ensure as many people as possible benefit from these advances, improving digital literacy and widening digital participation – in the way provided by the Tinder Foundation – must be a priority.

We should never sideline the importance of talking about issues or problems. However, providing accessible therapies online can give those who might not feel ready for face-to-face therapy an opportunity to gain some understanding of the way they feel and begin to manage it.