Is digital the answer to growing mental health needs?


A silhouette of a girl using a mobile phone

With mental health needs on the rise, IGHI’s latest Global Health Forum discusses whether the world of digital can step up to the challenge.

Statistics tell us that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime. But that doesn’t paint the full picture: this figure is rising.

And this growing number of people experiencing mental ill-health comes with a matched uptick in demand for support and crisis services. But with capacities stretched to their limits, systems are struggling to keep up.

“In the UK up to 40% of police time is taken up with work related to mental health issues; they receive a call every 2 minutes,” said Dr Emma Lawrance, Mental Health Innovations Fellow at the Institute of Global Health Innovation, at our most recent Forum.

“And since 2012 there’s been a 50% rise in A&E admissions related to mental health.”

High hopes for an obvious opportunity

Dr Lawrance was among a panel of experts who came together this Mental Health Awareness Week to discuss the latest research and innovations in mental health, with a focus on digital technologies. So, why digital?

“Digital tools have been heralded as a potential solution to address current needs; smartphones are almost ubiquitous, and there are a staggering 300,000 healthcare apps on the market, 10,000 of which are designed for mental health,” said Dr Lawrance.

While there is huge potential, she added, their promise has yet to be realised. Poor engagement coupled with a lack of human-centred design or universal standards has rendered the current digital landscape ill-equipped to deal with the issues at hand.

And then there’s data, or lack thereof. We need strong evidence to underpin new digital solutions, and to be able to analyse their effectiveness and suitability to the individuals they seek to support. Yet despite the thousands of apps, websites and other digital services in existence, there’s little data to back them up, or show they’re having an impact.

Another facet to further muddy the situation was highlighted by IGHI’s Senior Scientific Advisor, Dr Hutan Ashrafian: “The way we analyse mental health data might not be suited to digital tools.

“Traditional analytical methods were designed for drug treatments, so we need to devise new ways to measure quality.”

Dr Ashrafian co-produced a report on global mental health for the World Innovation Summit for Health last year, which highlighted the role of emerging digital technologies for progress in the mental health.

A pioneering platform

While there may be a historic lack of good data, things are about to change.

We’ve partnered with Mental Health Innovations (MHI), the digital charity behind the new 24/7 crisis text line, Shout. Together, we’ll be working to learn from Shout and generate unparalleled insights into today’s mental health landscape.

Dr Fiona Pienaar, MHI’s chief clinical officer, spoke of the service’s unique offering: “It’s private, it’s 24/7; it’s a proven technical platform.”

In its pilot year, there were 70,000 conversations with 35,000 texters. This offers a powerful opportunity to better understand the circumstances and needs of those in crisis, and to develop new ways to respond and support these individuals. That’s the crux of our new partnership.

Speaker Sarah Jones, a mental health researcher in IGHI’s Centre for Health Policy, is also working to better understand the behaviours and characteristics of people seeking help for their mental health.

Making research relevant

Jones is looking at people’s perceptions and use of technologies, to develop useful models that could predict whether or not people will adopt emerging digital mental health innovations. Her hope is that these could be applied to the wider field of health technologies, for instance monitors for diabetes.

Similarly, IGHI researcher Dr Lindsay Dewa is looking at how young people perceive digital technologies for mental health, and identifying ways to spot deterioration in this demographic. To ensure her work is truly relevant, she has been co-designing and co-producing her research with young people who have lived experience of mental ill-health.

“We know less about young people’s perspectives on digital tools for mental health; there’s been a lack of involvement throughout research.

“That’s where my research comes in.”

Join the conversation

This summarises just one of the many Global Health Forums that IGHI runs every year, on a range of interesting and present global health topics. To see a selection of the talks, watch the YouTube video below. 

If you’d like to hear more about research like this, sign up to our monthly Global Health Forums and join in the discussion.

Watch a selection of talks at the Forum


Justine Alford

Justine Alford
Institute of Global Health Innovation

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