To look into the history of mental health is to see years of stigma, inadequate, often brutal treatments and incompetent socio-political responsibilities towards those suffering. In fact, it’s only in the second half of the 20th century that treatments and attitudes towards mental health have experienced significant and productive change for the better in the UK.
However, problems still persist: considering that the economic and social cost of mental health problems to the UK is estimated to be £105 billion, it’s unfortunate that services within the NHS have been chronically underfunded during recent years. For instance, a King’s Fund report showed that 40% of mental health trusts actually received a reduction in their budgets in cash terms up until as recently as 2016, when thankfully over 80% received an increase in funding.
But looking solely to the NHS for mental health services isn’t the right solution and is one of the reasons why Anxiety UK has developed an online therapy platform through a partnership with the online doctor service, videoDoc.
The charity’s Anxiety UK online therapy service has been designed to help increase the reach of Anxiety UK’s registered therapists. It consists of web platform and a mobile app for people experiencing anxiety, stress, or anxiety-based depression.
According to Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of Anxiety UK, the development of the service and indeed the partnership with videoDoc came from the knowledge that many people were wanting quick and easy access to support.
“From our perspective we wanted to find a provider that could enable us to meet a growing need that we’ve seen amongst our beneficiaries. We know we have huge numbers visiting the website looking for essentially instant access support,” Lidbetter says.
Easy access to mental health services in the UK is something which is desperately needed. The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health paints a distressing picture in which there is a wide variation in the quality of mental health care up and down the country. Waiting times for consultants are supposedly covered by an 18-week maximum waiting time, though data from 2015 show that some patients were waiting up to 214 days.
Online solutions can theoretically bear some of the burden of NHS services whilst also potentially increasing the number of people accessing mental health treatments. The option to access services through a mobile device is something which Lidbetter believes can help those with anxiety disorders to access the therapies they need.
“With people who have anxiety, there are a number of conditions such as social anxiety, where actually being in a room with a practitioner is quite challenging and problematic. This technology allows us to overcome some of those barriers that are present with traditionally delivered therapy services,” Lidbetter said.
Digital therapies such as Anxiety UK’s online therapy are becoming more prevalent in the UK thanks to digital health companies, partnerships and a growing appetite from the NHS which recognises the need to start adopting new services.
Mary O’Brien, co-founder of videoDoc, has seen this appetite first-hand, though is willing to admit there are still barriers when trying to get the NHS to adopt new technologies.
“My experience has been when you talk to people there’s definitely an appetite for technologies,” O’Brien said. “There are a range of technology providers and mobile apps, and there is such a myriad of services and technologies, people are quite keen to distinguish what actually does deliver value and outcomes”.
It’s a fair comment. The NHS has to be careful where it spends its money and ensuring that any new technology services they install bring about the best changes for patients and doctors is commendable.
However, O’Brien states that within the NHS, there is still a resistance to change, with doctors and clinicians operating on the basis of – ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’.
“What I’ve also found is when you’re dealing with clinicians on a day-to-day basis, they’re quite resistant to change and it still comes back to an if it’s not broken don’t fix it mentality. We’ve spent a lot of time talking to CCGs and we just found a resistance to change even though this would lessen their burden, it would increase convenience, increase patient engagement and satisfaction, but it is difficult to ignite that change,” O’Brien said.
Fortunately, where there isn’t any resistance to change is in the work being done to raise awareness for mental health conditions. Numerous celebrity-backed charitable campaigns have helped bring about what seems like a culture change in the perspective surrounding mental health, hopefully reducing the stigma associated with many conditions.
“We know that anxiety, stress and anxiety-based depression are on the rise and in all the years that I have been CEO of Anxiety UK, I have never known such a time when mental health is talked about as much as it is now. This is a good thing as it helps to reduce stigma, and hence now more than ever, people are feeling able to come forward to get help Lidbetter said.
However, the rise in awareness can only be equated to one thing and that is the rise in the number of people suffering from mental health conditions. Common mental health disorders are now more prevalent than ever before and have risen by one-fifth since the 1990s. And despite the NHS doing what it can to ease pressures on mental health services, the notion to many may be that it’s simply not enough.
Indeed it must be remembered that digital services are not in essence designed to replace NHS services, but to simply offer patients another point of access.
“For us as an organisation we absolutely believe in choice and so it’s important that for us to ensure that people with anxiety have access to a range of support services because we don’t believe that one size fits all,” Lidbetter stated.