Recovering from a pandemic: Digital mental health support

Recovering from a pandemic: Digital mental health support

The way digital mental health is designed will determine how the nation recovers from the pandemic. Here, Tim Barker, CEO of Kooth explains why.

To manage the fallout from the pandemic, greater access to healthcare, and early intervention are critical. The lead indicators from digital mental health platform Kooth show the scale of the problem1. Self-harm tendencies among adults using the platform were up 23% in 2020. 17% of adults accessing mental health support say that they have self-harm or suicidal thoughts nearly every day, up 40% in a year. If we look at the men using Kooth’s platform, men presenting with issues related to self-harm in 2020 were up 61% in November, and up 32% in December.

The way we design digital mental health will determine how the nation recovers from here. With the bulk of the £13bn NHS Mental Health budget focused on supporting people with acute care needs, early intervention support has remained neglected despite the estimated 15:1 economic savings that early intervention offers. This is where digital technologies can play an important role in the long journey to recovery.

“Put simply, iPhone apps aren’t the answer”

Mental health infrastructure has embraced digital technology rapidly, with an adoption of Zoom alongside phone support. However, it must include the following three critical features:

1. Open access
It is in everyone’s interests to reduce entry level requirements to a minimum, to include those who do not have smartphones or significant data plans. Open access and inclusion are an important part of the solution. The nation’s health infrastructure must reach as wide an audience as possible and work for digital natives and digital novices. We need a culture where product teams design with and for these communities. The answer is accessibility, which is just as important as performance and engineering. Put simply, iPhone apps aren’t the answer. Digital services need to be low bandwidth, with no download.

2. Anonymity
There remains a stigma around asking for help. As long as this remains the case, anonymity is paramount. Any digital health tool must consider anonymity as a central design feature.

Research from the University of Manchester and Kooth shows that coupling inclusive design with anonymity is certainly key for young people. Kooth data shows a 27% increase in children and young people presenting with self-harm issues, and a 106% increase in university students struggling with anxiety among its users. These vulnerable groups within our society need anonymity to seek help.

3. Safety
To survive, any digital platform must be easy-to-use, useful and safe. Digital healthcare platforms are no different. The government has recognised the importance of online safety, particularly with children, in its Online Harms legislation. It has never been more important that online platforms provide a safe space for data, identity and communication.

Looking ahead
Kooth insights have given the NHS a vital feedback loop on the state of the nation’s mental health. The path from here is greater access to anonymous, safe digital health support and we must use every piece of data at our disposal to make the right decisions.

Reference

1. Kooth Pulse 2021: The State of the Nation’s Mental Health report. Kooth data from April 2020 to March 2021 (NHS Fiscal Year 2020) covered 192,000 people with mental health issues.

Tim Barker is CEO at Kooth. Go to www.kooth.com