Digital mental health support offers new opportunities, but needs resource and investment to be offered safely and equitably, says Centre for Mental Health

15 December 2022

Digital mental health support can be a good alternative to face-to-face care for some, but should not replace traditional support, according to a new briefing by Centre for Mental Health.

Connected: Remote technology in mental health services finds that while the use of digital or remote care has rapidly expanded as a result of the pandemic, it needs investment to be offered safely and fairly to everyone who might benefit from it.

Produced as part of the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit, the briefing summarises evidence from six studies on remote care (or ‘tele mental health’) – the use of digital and telephone technology to deliver mental health services.

The briefing says that using digital and other remote technology can improve access to mental health support for rural communities, disabled people or people needing a specialist service far from home. And it has the potential to increase access and choice in mental health care. But it also risks exacerbating inequalities for people who are digitally excluded.

The briefing finds that while digital mental health support has the potential to increase access and choice in mental health care, these new approaches require regulation and investment to ensure their safety, efficacy and accessibility.

Connected also highlights the risk of digital mental health support being offered instead of face-to-face support, or being seen as a ‘cheaper alternative’ at a time of pressures on NHS spending. It says that a person’s choice over how they want to access care should be paramount, and that the use of remote care should not make it even harder for people to access face-to-face support.

The briefing calls for mental health service commissioners and providers to address digital poverty and exclusion in the use of remote care, and to provide sufficient investment so that remote care is safe and regulated.

Andy Bell, deputy chief executive at Centre for Mental Health and author of the briefing, said: “Digital mental health support can improve access and choice for people seeking mental health support. But health care providers have to invest to ensure they are offered safely and equitably – this is not a ‘cheap alternative’. Everyone must be given a choice of how they engage with services: digital offers should not make it harder for someone to access in-person support.”

Karen Machin, member of the Lived Experience Working Group for the Policy Research Unit, said: “The structural nature of inequalities and injustices can be amplified with the introduction of any new technology. Policy makers and service providers need to be alert to who might become excluded from support if they are unable or unwilling to access digital mental health support, and ensure that this doesn’t result in increasing exclusion and discrimination.”

Brynmor Lloyd-Evans, Professor of Mental Health and Social Inclusion at University College London, said: “Tele mental health offers opportunities to improve access to mental health care and will be preferable for some people in some contexts. But the principle of offering individualised care still applies: tele mental health should be an option not a default. Service user choice is paramount.”

Download the report

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