Newcastle University Business School

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Digital platforms support global mental health during pandemic

Digital platforms could enable monitoring of mental health in real-time, say researchers.

Range of digital platforms

For the first time ever, digital providers and experts from over 20 countries have gathered a staggering number of insights about mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research team, which involved academics at Newcastle University Business School, say the work shows how digital providers are coming together to support the mental health needs of millions of users unable to access traditional services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, published in Frontiers in Digital Health and led by Dr Becky Inkster from the University of Cambridge, included a range of digital services, such as patient-to-clinician platforms, digitally-enabled treatments, mental health and wellbeing apps, chatbots and social support networks

The preliminary results paint a troubling and, at times, bleak picture of the impact the pandemic is having on people’s mental health, but they also capture positive aspects, such as peer-to-peer support or virtual companionship for older adults.

Working with a range of data sources including 45 digital mental health services and four financial service providers, the research highlighted changes in the type of information people are seeking. For example, at the start of the first lockdown, many providers saw an increase in the number of users searching for information and resources about mental health issues, from information on anxiety to strategies for coping with domestic violence and advice on getting support.

Dr Marwa Elnahass, Senior Lecturer, Newcastle University Business School, was part of the research team. “To our knowledge, this type of study has never been done at scale before,” explained Dr Elnahass. “With rapid turnaround, a diverse range of more than 50 providers came forward, representing a user base of more than 10 million people.

“We hope this novel project raises awareness and helps bridge the gaps between digital mental health services, and offline conventional mental health services, as well as create important connections with other sectors such as financial services.”

Greater support 

Digital mental health providers saw an increase in the number of people seeking help on topics ranging from the prevention of self-harm to financial concerns. Providers also saw more queries relating to strategies to cope with anxiety or managing work, studies, or sleep, as well as questions about dealing with domestic violence and difficult home relationships.

However, on a positive note, platforms that offer digital peer support networks saw an increase in the number of people offering support during the pandemic. One provider reported that more than half of its users felt less lonely and that virtual companions had performed a range of tasks for elderly users, such as obtaining medications and helping with online grocery shopping. Another reported a 283% increase in the numbers of people replying to other people's messages and the number of people signing up for roles to provide support for others more than doubling.

The authors of the study believe that digital providers can help address delays in mental healthcare, and deliver frontline services by offering support, treatment, and real-time monitoring of mental health. Such services can also detect how people react and respond to events that have an impact on their lives.

Dr Karen Elliott, Senior Lecturer, Newcastle University Business School, added: “This study demonstrates the complexity of mental health concerns as witnessed by digital providers. Bringing together online providers with other sectors like financial services providers is important, given the links between money and mental health and the potential for more holistic treatment. In this way, the project demonstrates community building, and organisations coming together in a time of great need, highlighting the massively growing area of digital mental health.”

Global crisis

Prior to the pandemic, mental health was already a global crisis with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting that almost 1 billion people globally had a mental health disorder, and that depression was already projected to become the leading cause of disease burden globally by 2030.

Dr Becky Inkster, who led the project, said: “If we’re to be ready for the pandemic’s long-lasting impact on mental health, we need to get an accurate and broad picture of the situation we’re facing.   We’ve shown that it’s possible for a large number of providers to work together across borders to rapidly gather valuable insights. This could be used to set up an integrated digital system to better understand and respond to people’s mental health needs on a global scale in real-time.

 “Part of the value of these digital platforms is that they encourage people to seek support through means in which they feel comfortable. At the same time, it’s important to recognise that not everyone chooses or is able to access such services, and so it remains a continuing priority to find ways to reach everyone who is vulnerable.”

The next steps for the project will be to develop a rigorous method for bringing together public and private sector data to monitor mental health needs in real-time and help to inform high-quality responses that can be delivered remotely to those in need. The team will also continue to work with providers to capture follow-up insights at later time points.

Reference

Inkster, B et al. Early warning signs of a mental health tsunami: A coordinated response to gather initial data insights from multiple digital services providers. Frontiers in Digital Health. 10 Feb 2021. DOI:10.3389/fdgth.2020.578902

Adapted from an article by the University of Cambridge

Information about mental health and wellbeing support available for Newcastle University students and staff can be found at https://www.ncl.ac.uk/wellbeing/

 

Mential health app on an ipad, keyboard in background

published on: 16 February 2021