Will technology help solve the mental health crisis?

Read Time: 3 Min

The UK is currently in the midst of a mental health crisis. The numbers of those in contact with mental health services jumped to 1.61 million this summer. There has been growing demand for these services since the pandemic, and the rise in cost-of-living is expected to increase the prevalence of mental health difficulties.

At the same time as demand grows for mental health support, the number of psychiatric beds in NHS hospitals has fallen by a quarter since 2010, dropping to c.17.5k last year. And the NHS Benchmarking Network found that the median waiting time to be seen by a community mental health team last year was 13 weeks. In some cases, this is just too late to save lives.

The answer may be more direct investment needed, but the anticipated public spending cuts means that is unlikely to be forthcoming. And even if mental health services could secure more public sector investment, one in six of all posts in mental health nursing were vacant earlier this year, highlighting that the difficulties the sector faces goes beyond just funding.

People using mental health services UK
People in the UK in contact with Mental Health Services in the UK (NHS Digital Mental Health Statistics)

Technology cannot solve for everything – mental health services require face to face support. However, tech can help support services to identify requirements and intervene earlier, and in a faster and more efficient way. If it can help to lower costs of servicing, then it will enable the NHS to service more people. If it can also prevent mild and moderate cases from worsening, then the NHS can also channel more resources to those most in need. We look at just some ways tech can help with identifying, evaluating, prioritising and implementing mental health support:

1. Software to support the mental health ecosystem

Often when people talk about tech and the mental health industry, they think about the next big thing, like AI generated outcomes or augmented reality psychiatry. The truth is that one of the bigger problems to overcome in the mental health space is that the system itself can be quite inefficient, and people struggling with mental health issues may not feel able to fill out all the details and stick to the strict appointment timetables that the system requires. What you end up with is patients falling through the net, something that creates inefficiencies for the health service and poor outcomes for patients.

That is why some of the really valuable technologies in mental health today help solve for some of those more subtle problems. Examples of this can be seen in scheduling software that reminds a patient of their appointment with a day-of text, workflow tracking along the patient pathway, the HIPAA-compliant Zoom service that means all practices can have compliant video technology, or treatment monitoring capabilities that can support patients in keeping track of their medication and care next steps.

Even having the basics like an online appointment booking and a proper electronic patient record system is important, and it may surprise people how much of the existing healthcare system doesn’t have this. Getting this infrastructure in place will in turn create high quality data, more productivity and greater efficiencies in the system. This will allow the NHS to service more patients and cope with the growing demand across the mental health service.

2. Creating communities to support de-escalation of problems

Mind found that the rapid increase in the severity of challenges with mental health that people saw during the pandemic, was in part driven by lack of personal contact and loneliness. 88% of young people said loneliness made their mental health worse. And the end of lockdown restrictions hasn’t solved for this, with the World Economic Forum finding that chronic loneliness is affecting up to 1 million more people in the UK than before the pandemic.

Loneliness and mental health can work in tandem. Having mental health issues can be very isolating, and feeling lonely and not being able to talk about what you’re going through has a negative impact on mental wellbeing.

Graphic from mind.org.uk

This is why there’s been a growth in online communities where people can support each other to improve their wellbeing. Being able to talk about what you’re experiencing, especially with people who may have been through it before, can be hugely helpful. And by turning to someone early and making connections through a safe and secure community, people can hopefully prevent their situation worsening.

3. The app solution

In recognition of the ongoing global crisis around mental health, there has been a real burst of app development, with thousands now available on the App store. These cover a range of mental health and wellbeing scenarios, with support for self-management, skill-training, illness management, or passive symptom tracking.

This mobile mental health support can be simple but effective. For example, there are apps used by the NHS that help people learn to relax and manage stress, build resilience, or provide support with specialist recovery such as eating disorders or self-harm. Apps that track your data or behaviour patterns can also provide a signal that help is needed before a crisis occurs and can include things like language used on social media and exercise to help build a picture of factors that improve or worsen mental health for patients. Another example of how can this work was the winner at the recent ECI-sponsored UK Tech Awards, R;pple Suicide Prevention, which intercepts harmful searches around suicide and self-harm and provides a message of hope and a selection of 24/7 mental health charity partners they can contact immediately via phone or webchat.

Some of the benefits to these apps are that they provide quick and convenient access, without the need to book appointments, and allow for real-time monitoring. For younger generations, they will be used to the app infrastructure and it can easily become part of their daily smartphone routine. They can also help as a starting point for awareness and education, and for mild/moderate cases they can help to overcome the stigma of mental health that they might associate with talking to doctors.

However, as this is a new technology frontier, there is also very little industry regulation and evidence around app effectiveness. This can lead to consumers and healthcare providers finding it hard to choose the right platform. I would anticipate that in the next 5 years this will change, with a tightening of regulation and validation of clinical quality apps. More data will be available and proof points will emerge around which platforms truly add value and are positive contributors to the sector. This will likely lead to an emergence of “winners” in the space backed up with evidence.

If you would like to discuss the mental health and mental health technology sector, or find out how ECI are supporting their portfolio with wellbeing and mental health initiatives, please do get in touch.

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