How digitalisation can bring inclusion to mental health patients

By Maria-Cecilia Angulo

Mental health is becoming a very relevant topic at the European level. Recent statistics shows how the lack of attention to the issue is costing governments and private companies a great amount of money and human capital. Mental health disorders are affecting 25% of the European population, costing employers in the EU around 54 billion euros a year.

As a response and with the aim of raising awareness to the damages mental illness is causing to society, this year the World Health Organization dedicated International Health Day to depression, since depression is currently considered the leading cause of disability worldwide.

The main reason of this crisis relies on citizens’ poor access to high quality health care that includes mental health assistance: statistics have revealed that in Europe 3 out of 4 people do not receive adequate mental health care.

Within the political scenario, the European Union and member states are tackling the issue from different perspectives especially by supporting a joint action on mental health that seeks to include mental health as a first priority in the public health agenda. The EU has also developed a web-based mechanism to collect, exchange and analyse information on policy in mental health called EU-Compass which has been accompanied by activities, newsletters and a large number of publications.

One of the most interesting solutions came from the involvement of innovation and technology in the field of mental health: eHealth, for instance was created with the aim of combining the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in health.  Sadly the debate has not gone further than discussion on data sharing and access to data, when patients require urgent health care services.

Patients with a mental health condition need permanent access to health. A big part of the success of the assessments relies on their ability to have easy contact with professionals, likewise the success of the treatments depends on the follow up and the continuity of care. However, currently there are numerous barriers, for instance; face to face therapy is becoming more and more difficult to access in Europe.

According to a recent study done by NHS, nearly 6,000 mental health patients had to travel long distances for treatment in 2016 in the UK. Due to patients’ lack of motivation, this situation has constricted some patients to travel to attend appointments. Besides, psychotherapy can be costly and it takes enormous amount of time and energy, especially for people with busy daily routines.

In this sense, digitalisation is bringing some light to the puzzle. Patients will be able to access health services such as online counselling from their laptops or smartphones. They will easily discuss their issues with certified professionals during lunch breaks or from the comfort of their homes. This modern approach will also allow them to access less expensive services, taking into account that practitioners will reduce costs by providing online services whilst they allocate more time to each patient.

On the other hand, digitalisation of mental health care will largely benefit young population which has not only been greatly affected by mental health disorders but are also more willing to use online platforms to access all kind of services. Depression for instance has been largely affecting UK youth population where there is an average of 6,000 lives lost to suicide each year and most of them are young men under 40.

In addition, digitalisation of health care does not exclusively refer to online therapy and counselling, it also includes the use of social media for fundraising and advocacy that is having a huge impact in the mental health sector. Online tutorials and training for carers and families in charge of patients are also positive initiatives.

Of course, the concerns regarding patients’ safety and liability cannot be overlooked. An inadequate implementation or deregulation of the programs and services could be risky, mainly because of the complexity in controlling digital platforms where patients could find themselves in contact with dubious online health providers. Mental health care has to be profitable for companies and professionals but at the same time there should be some investment and interest in protecting patient’s privacy.

Yet, specific legislation of these new models is missing at the EU level and the debate is still embryonic. As a result, it has been challenging for IT companies, start-ups and health organisations “which have been developing apps and video chats systems” to reach a critical mass in terms of use of mental health platforms in a way that online service become a regular and acceptable means to access health care.

Thus, the European Union has a long way to go until becoming a good example of how digital mental health care can help patients whilst creating profit for companies without risking patient’s privacy and trust. Indeed, it involves determination from governments, stakeholders and investors but it’s worth the effort given that it will fill the needs of mental health patients and also will make mental health services and education more accessible to medium and low income families in Europe.