Dr Simon Bourne, founder and CEO of my mhealth, shares why he thinks investing in technology is essential to helping the nation rebuild its mental health, following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Disruption to the quality of, and access to, mental health support is pushing the nation towards a mental health crisis. Analysis of NHS and Office for National Statistics (ONS) data by The Royal College of Psychiatrists saw record numbers of adults and children seeking help after the first lockdown in March 2020.
COVID-19 cases have worsened not only physical health but mental wellbeing too. According to the ONS, one in five adults in England now suffer from moderate to severe depression. Daily bad news, weekly changing guidelines, little time with loved ones and exponential loss all over the UK has driven fear of the unknown. The consequences of the pandemic have taken a toll on emotional wellbeing across the UK.
Children spending long periods of time out of school, the elderly and vulnerable being at higher risk to parents and the worry of job loss shows how widespread the impact is. There is a fundamental need to address the lasting legacy of the pandemic on our communities and health workers on the frontline.
The psychological impact of the crisis is evident within those working in the healthcare sector. Over half of NHS staff reported a decline in mental health since the start of the pandemic, with over two-thirds reporting anxiety and a third reporting depression according to research from NHS Charities Together. Health workers who are a vulnerable group themselves continue to suffer from stress, anxiety and burn out. Providing the care sector with simple, accessible help based on cognitive behavioural therapies will drive recovery as we adjust to the ‘new normal’.
Social isolation and little interaction have been detrimental, and the invisibility of the mental burden has meant treatment has been less urgent and under-resourced. We need to reach people quicker to help stop the pandemic leaving a lasting legacy on both care staff and patients.
We are in the midst of an intense period of demand for help for those encountering difficulties with their mental health. To address this, we must look at how to mitigate overwhelming the already strained NHS service. Capitalising on the use of digital therapy to nurture recovery in the community at scale will be fundamental in moving forward.
Building a support network across the UK is the first step to recovering from one of the most challenging times we have faced. Disruption and gaps created by the pandemic have put pressure on already limited mental health resources. We need to find alternatives to maintain the delivery of essential services moving forward. Digital can offer new ways to help whilst reducing pressures on resources and delivering the same quality of care at scale.
The strategy needs to be long-term, not just a shift to meet a short-spike in demand. Educating the community about the alternative treatments and care available beyond someone’ usual network is important. Many habitual channels of care and communication would have halted due to the pandemic, but despite the lockdowns and challenges, the community is still there. Increasing attention towards mental health can foster conversations and bring a usually commonly taboo subject into the forefront of people’s minds moving forward.
Making healthcare professionals aware of the signs and where intervention is needed is another way to support those suffering from the psychological consequences of COVID. Not everyone has access to technology, so we need to create resources that support this. There is no denying society’s recovery will take time and effort. The investment must start now.
The integration of technology to support the diagnosis and treatment of mental health is long-awaited – by those directly and indirectly affected by the virus. Technology can work quickly to present users with answers to specific questions, helping to analyse the issues they may be struggling with.
Striking a balance
Digital counselling services, helplines and intensive psychological support can maximise social connectedness, which has continued to be a challenge, especially over the past year. Digital can promote well-being and keep people informed. Achieving balance and setting boundaries will be a priority to prevent people from feeling overwhelmed.
Apps developed to help with anxiety, for example, are extremely promising, as they provide patients with instant, continuous support at their fingertips. That said, while digital health is tackling these issues, there is still work to do and improvements to be made.
To ensure that patients receive optimum mental health care, they must have access to the right information. Mental health diagnosis requires intrinsic questioning and an in-depth discussion. Technology can offer respite when services lack the capacity and resilience to provide patients with interventions at short notice.
Keeping society engaged through digital therapy will help to mitigate poor mental health. Offering highly effective support and guidance delivered at a pace determined by the individual will play a substantial role in helping people manage their recovery.
We must address the issues present in the healthcare sector while staff and patients are still suffering. Offering the support to navigate the mental impact of the pandemic will make or break as we begin to physically and mentally rebuild beyond the pandemic.