In 2018, the British Medical Association (BMA) warned that many thousands of patients are waiting six or more months for “talking therapies”, including psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Worse still, waiting times in some parts of the country are between one and two years for those with more severe mental health problems. It is easy to see why many people turn to alternatives. While private mental health services are available, they come at a cost many cannot afford (commonly in the region of £60 per hour). Enter, the new world of digital mental health therapy.
If you haven’t heard of ‘Insta-therapy’, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. In the field of mental health, the latest technology is blending with psychological theory in fascinating and innovative ways, some of which are simple, and others which are truly cutting edge.
The healing potential of social media
Only recently, one of my colleagues observed that Instagram was perhaps one of the only social media platforms which left her positive and inspired; that is rare praise indeed for social media, which many see as rather toxic to our wellbeing. Take, for example, the Instagram page of Hackney-based cognitive therapist, Hazel Gale, who was recently featured in an article in the Evening Standard. Any subscriber to her Instagram feed cannot fail to feel immensely enriched and emboldened. Her images are typically beautiful quotes designed to enable users to reconnect with their soul and remind us of our innate humanness.
Speaking in the Evening Standard, Gale explains that she is trying to reduce the barriers to mental health services, but the use of social media platforms is not intended to replace therapy, “it’s all about starting the conversation.” She is an ex-world champion kick-boxer who encountered her own mental health struggles resulting from burnout and over-training. In addition to Instagram, Gale also provides Facebook workshops and other online courses. She is a firm believer that an upside of the facelessness of social media is that sufferers feel freer to open up – a point which is reinforced by the high completion rate of her online Facebook courses compared to face to face therapies. Far from being an inevitable source of mental health issues, Gale believes that by skilfully ‘curating’ your social media feeds, they can become a positive influence on our wellbeing.
Looking to the future of digital healing
The NHS recently published a report entitled ‘The digital future of mental healthcare and its workforce’, by Dr Tom Foley and Dr James Woollard, which provides a glimpse into the future of digital mental health services.
Virtual reality (VR) – studies have already been carried out on the use of VR headsets to help people suffering from phobias, dementia, psychosis, and paranoia, amongst many other conditions. Such therapies will start to have an impact within three to five years.
Augmented reality – within five to ten years, those with mental health conditions will be able to wear devices which will enable them to see real-time therapeutic feedback and guidance as they go about their normal day. The potential of this technology is limitless.
Mobile apps – there are theoretically thousands of ways in which mobile apps could be developed to assist those with mental health conditions. Many already exist, such as ‘Calm’ and ‘Headspace’ which are shown to be effective in helping users to relax through meditation and mindfulness. Mobile apps also have the potential to help those with more life-affecting conditions. One such app, ‘Actissist’ is currently being developed to provide CBT for those in the early stages of psychosis. This shows that mobile apps can be incredibly valuable in halting or controlling conditions at their earliest stages.
Artificial intelligence (AI) – AI will be used to predict the onset of mental health conditions and provide highly personalised diagnosis and treatment. We will also likely see the growth of AI-driven chatbots, which when integrated with natural language processing, will provide people with access to automated and semi-automated therapeutic tools to help manage conditions.
We are already using digital technologies in new and imaginative ways to help individuals suffering from mild to severe mental health conditions, including the use of wearable devices, smartwatches, and telemedicine.
The world of digital mental health is about to transform how we access psychological services, help, and guidance. Where the NHS is currently struggling to provide the human resources necessary to meet the needs of those with early-stage and advanced mental conditions, technology will very likely be able to fill the demand gap. If these technologies can be scaled, made affordable, accessible, and effective, conditions that previously went undiagnosed, or left too long between onset and treatment, may be halted and even reversed. We can only hope this leads to effective mental health services available to all as the benefits for every aspect of our lives and society can only be imagined.
BDBF is a specialist and leading employment law firm based in the City of London. For advice on mental health in the workplace please contact Arpita Dutt – BDBF LLP. Contact us on 020 3828 0350 for employment law advice.