Is digital mental health the key to tackling a deepening crisis?

British Liberal Democrat politician, solicitor and mental health campaigner Sir Norman Lamb discusses why digital mental health services can help tackle the escalating mental health crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe negative effect on the population’s mental health across the globe. We know that government measures like social distancing and working from home were essential, but a lack of social interaction, restricted access to open spaces, confined living conditions with young children and elderly relatives and anxiety associated with working from home, furloughing or redundancy, has had an detrimental impact on the wellbeing of citizens.

Data from digital mental health platform Kooth has shown self-harm tendencies have increased in adults using the platform by 23% during 2020¹. 17% of adults accessing mental health support say that they think about hurting themselves or feel suicidal nearly every day, a 40% increase on the previous year. Kooth data also showed a significant rise in the proportion of male service users presenting with issues related to self-harm in 2020 – up 61% in November, and up 32% in December.

I’ve been advocating for greater mental health support for as long as I can remember. I’m alarmed by the trends we see in the lead indicators. Many children and young people feel a loss of motivation without structure and the daily routine of school or work. Some people are discussing feelings of loneliness and worry about not being able to see friends and family – and the impact this will have on their wellbeing longer term. Even more concerning, these symptoms have led to a worsening of disorders such as depression. Kooth data revealed that 52% of adult service users have presented with issues of anxiety or stress, a 12% increase from last year. Kooth also saw a 39% increase in suicidal thoughts among young people on its platform. When looking at young people specifically, we saw a 54% increase in suicidal thoughts among 10-13 year olds, which is a frightening trend.

More than a year on from the first lockdown, it’s time to ask questions about how children and young people, often seen as the “forgotten victims” of the crisis, have coped. Kooth has seen 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. This trend was already growing pre-pandemic, but it has now been exacerbated and requires immediate attention from public services, employers, families, schools, and other support systems.

Black, South Asian and Non-White communities have also shown high levels of loneliness and stress. Kooth saw an 83% increase in sleep difficulties and 40% increase in suicide thoughts among young people from ethnic minorities on the platform. Sadly, Black, South Asian and Non-White communities are less likely to access mental health support than white communities for several reasons including, language barriers, racism, discrimination and bias in treatment settings, mental health stigma, and lack of availability in their area.

This is just one of the reasons why digital, anonymous, and easily accessible mental health services are so critical. The pandemic has widened socio-economic gaps in UK society with entire communities being disadvantaged. This must stop.

With the growing demand for mental health services over the past year, people have increasingly been relying on digital services because they can access anonymous and unbiased help online during lockdowns. Digital mental health support will also have an important role to play post-pandemic, as it is safe, easily accessible, and affordable. As we move to a more home-based living style, we rely more heavily on tech in our daily lives, which is also accelerating the switch towards more digitally-based mental health support. This is an area where digital platforms can play a significant role in expanding access to mental health support, providing access to high-quality professional counselling and self-help tools, delivering critical early intervention, prevention, and ongoing support for individuals with mental health problems.

“Therapeutic support and early intervention through digital mental health services is critical to the overall wellbeing of our population”

Now that we’re slowly entering the “new normal”, digital mental health platforms find themselves being a vital tool to support the NHS after increasingly supporting people during lockdowns when they couldn’t reach traditional services. Digital mental health services were already working with the NHS pre-pandemic, but they’ve been progressively expanding during the pandemic. Therapeutic support and early intervention through digital mental health services is critical to the overall wellbeing of our population.

I’m a strong proponent of early intervention. I’ve seen the impact during my political career and in my personal life. I lost my older sister from suicide and our oldest son, Archie, experienced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a teenager. Two very different experiences that have impacted my life and affected me more than anyone could imagine. It also made me realise the importance of early intervention to help our loved ones and make sure they receive the support they need to go through their own challenges. With early interventions, some of the worst outcomes can potentially be avoided, and they will be, as we develop digital services further.

For many people, their first confrontation with mental health comes in a time of crisis: be it a pandemic, a heartbreak, a bereavement, the loss of a job or simply just excess, sustained stress. It is for this reason, that when individuals reach their breaking point, the effort to reach out and ask for help can sometimes feel an impossible task. This is why routine ‘mental health hygiene’ is crucial in the conversation around mental health. This is where early intervention comes it. See it as your own lives. Just as parents teach their children to look after their bodies: brushing your teeth, physical exercise, eating good food to fuel your body, it’s imperative to also teach ourselves and our children how to look after our minds and our mental wellbeing from a young age. Early intervention to guide us not only reduces the societal stigma surrounding mental health, but also means that we can learn to identify developing issues earlier and reach out for support before things start to snowball.

As we bring early intervention and digital mental health services together to tackle mental health issues, we can develop a stronger response the current crisis without failing our society.

¹Kooth 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.

About the author

Sir Norman Lamb is a British Liberal Democrat politician and solicitor. He was the Member of Parliament for North Norfolk from 2001 to 2019 and chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee from 2017 to 2019. He is currently Chair of an NHS Trust.