Sydney, Australia: The pandemic has had a significant effect on the lives of many. Everyone faced challenges that led to stressful and overwhelming conditions. Public health actions, such as social distancing, are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but that can make anyone feel isolated and lonely, increasing stress and anxiety. Still, it has also shown that digital technology can be a legitimate tool to fix the system, allowing more people to access treatment online, over the phone, and on video.
If harnessed in the right way, experts believe digital services can transform mental health treatment by giving people access to personalised, appropriate care, ensuring expert clinicians see the right patients, and allowing both to track people’s progress.
The digital services that are now widely available are just the tip of the iceberg, according to a psychiatrist and co-director of Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre, Professor Ian Hickie.
Numerous reports, including the Productivity Commission’s report on mental health and the final report from the parliamentary mental health and suicide committee, have highlighted that well-designed digital systems can help change the country’s mental health services for the better.
Melissa Black, clinical research lead and psychologist with the Black Dog Institute, said a clear benefit of online mental health services is they take pressure off the country’s in-person systems which are struggling with long waiting lists and limited access to specialised care. Dr Black said combining online and offline methods mean in-person treatment can focus on more complex issues, and the patient can use great online tools to help with things like anxiety.
Digital mental health services are already shifting the way they operate. ReachOut, Lifeline, and Beyond Blue are running a pilot program that seamlessly connects the organisations. It means a teen on the ReachOut website can talk to crisis support staff at Lifeline if they’re in severe distress without having to switch sites.
The Commonwealth is working on a similar linked service. A large part of the $111 million committed to digital mental health services in the budget will go towards a Head to Health digital platform that is set to launch in the first half of 2022.
The platform aims to be a “one-stop-shop” for mental health services in the country. In the early stages, it will provide personalised advice and information relevant to people’s concerns and help people find local face-to-face services. It will also offer digital clinical care, as well as peer support or other self-driven support.
In the long run, Mr Coleman said the plan is to integrate the online and offline offerings so people have ongoing support whether they’re receiving in-person treatment or using the online tools.