Digital mental health: developing technology to meet needs

BBC Radio 5 Live's State of Mind series has highlighted the increased use of computer appointments to provide mental health support on the NHS. This support includes a wide range of services such as face-to-face therapy, courses and self-help information that can be accessed by computer, smartphone, tablet and other devices; some of which are guided by a therapist.

NHS Digital figures for the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) over the past two years show increases in such appointments each month from just under 6,000 in June 2015 to 14,500 in June 2017: a proportionate increase from 1.5% to 3.6% of all appointments. I spoke to 5 Live about the opportunities provided by digital technologies drawing on the Mental Health Foundation's digital work including our European eMEN project, co-funding the Digital Technology for Mental Health study to identify the top ten UK research priorities in this field, and our own BeMindful online mindfulness programme.

The NHS Digital figures provide an opportunity to talk about some of the issues surrounding digital and mental health support. Digital technologies present opportunities to provide greater access to mental health support including specialist care, in a flexible way that fits with the rest of a person's preferences and commitments such as work and caring responsibilities.

Some people prefer to access support digitally rather than in person. Digital enables people to access support much earlier instead of, or while being on, a waiting list. Digital can enhance existing mental health support when a person is already seeing health and social care professionals (so-called ‘blended care’).

I have been asked a variety of questions around digital. Does it work – for whom and how? Is this care on the cheap? Is this diverting publicly trained professionals and public money into private care? What happens to all the data that is collected: are there risks of ‘big brother’ surveillance? Does digital risk increasing inequality in access to mental health support?

A lot of focus around digital and mental health is on the technology. Virtual reality, the use of avatars in therapy, artificial intelligence therapy bots may – or may not – light your fire. But in some ways the technology is a distraction. Much more important is knowing how we want our mental health supported, and then developing technology to meet those genuine needs.

We need to ensure that our public services – in health, social care, education and criminal justice, reorient to realise the potential of digital technologies. This includes training, resourcing frontline workers with technology (even the 'frugal tech' of a smart phone), upgrading infrastructure, and developing clinical and administrative systems.

Digital technologies are going to play an increasing part in mental health support: clinical, peer and self-management. It is important that we all are part of these conversations.

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