Unpacking the Stats: Digital Mental Health Interventions

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May 18, 2024

66% of people think digital mental health interventions should be included in traditional healthcare.

​​In 2023, The Decision Lab conducted a comprehensive survey with over 700 participants. Questions spanned across our focus areas, including emerging technology, mental health, and personal and professional growth. Let's delve into the findings.

After being laid off last year, Michael has been experiencing some mental health difficulties. Anxious about the future, he’s finally worked up the courage to reach out for professional help. Dialling number after number, he sought a therapist through traditional means but was met with year-long waitlists. 

Just as his hopes were dwindling, his phone buzzed—a reminder of his upcoming virtual session with a therapist, something he signed up for just a week ago out of sheer desperation. Though it's not how he envisioned his journey to mental wellness, this online alternative represents a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. 

Behind the Numbers 

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for mental health services reached new heights. But even with lockdowns and isolation in our rearview, demand still exceeds supply, with many psychologists expressing concerns about increasingly lengthy waitlists.1

Digital mental health services have been proposed as a game changer—with studies demonstrating that these e-alternatives can be just as effective as in-person sessions.2,3 Not only that, but virtual care removes accessibility barriers by allowing people in remote locations to access therapy and mental health tools. Oftentimes, these platforms and programs are offered in various languages and are more cost-effective than traditional interventions.4 

Worldwide Response

Digital mental health interventions (DMHIs) leverage technologies such as websites, mobile apps, video conferencing, and virtual reality to deliver various forms of mental health support. This umbrella term encompasses everything from calling a therapist in real time to AI chatbots.

Governments across the globe have been responding to the call for accessible services by introducing supportive online programs. In Australia, MindSpot—a zero-cost and confidential online and phone therapy service—reached 200 people in their first year (2012) with 70% completing treatment. Now, more than 30,000 Australians register for the various programs each year.5 With all of these pros, why did 34% of respondents disagree? Is there a catch?

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Hidden Hurdles of Online Mental Health

DMHIs are not a cure-all solution. While they may increase accessibility in some respects, they exclude people who aren’t proficient in or familiar with the tech. This is further exacerbated by socioeconomic barriers to accessing these devices and difficulties in understanding how to use them.6 

On top of this, when it comes to online mental health treatment, privacy concerns are significant due to the sensitive nature of the information involved. Therapist-client confidentiality is much easier to maintain and understand in face-to-face contexts. In fact, according to a meta-analysis conducted in 2023 of the 48 web-based services examined, none of them featured a method to notify clients in the event of a security breach.7

Even with its drawbacks, there is no discounting the potential of DMHIs. But what does integrating these tools into traditional healthcare look like?

Bridging the Digital Divide 

For starters, for these treatments to be successful, we need to bridge the digital divide. Not only does this mean getting people accustomed to the technology and improving digital literacy, but also encouraging active participation in the treatment process. Making room for digital navigation specialists can help clients receive a more tailored and intuitive experience.8

Just like in-person therapy, the mental health tools and techniques that resonate with a teenage girl living in a busy city will be vastly different from the platforms that could help a middle-aged man living in a rural community. Failure to account for our differences will make mental health services no more accessible than they already are.

It’s all about getting everyone involved. Digital interventions call for a collaborative approach with primary care providers, mental health clinicians, digital navigators, and patients. Beyond this, significant investments need to be made in training and tech. Mental healthcare is also a financial burden—accessibility also means creating flexible payment methods and updating insurance policies to encompass these new forms of therapeutic delivery.

Envisioning Integrated Mental Health Care

Even if we aren’t all the way there yet, DMHIs can be used to encourage treatment adherence—such as following up with users via digital tools rather than having them wait for another in-person appointment. 

As we contemplate the future of mental healthcare, there are many unanswered questions and concerns. While mental health professionals are already backed up, there is still such a small percentage of people actively seeking treatment—with many suffering in silence. Perhaps this is because of the scarily long waitlist, or maybe there is still fear around stigmatization. But as time goes on and tech advancements propel us forward, we may get an answer to the burning question: is democratizing mental healthcare the key to treatment-seeking behavior?

References

  1. Chatterjee, R. (2023, December 6). Psychologists say they can’t meet the growing demand for mental health care. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2023/12/06/1217487323/psychologists-waitlist-demand-mental-health-care 
  2. Prescott, M. R., Sagui-Henson, S. J., Welcome Chamberlain, C. E., Castro Sweet, C., & Altman, M. (2022). Real World Effectiveness of digital mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic. PLOS ONE, 17(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0272162 
  3. Kim, J., Aryee, L. M., Bang, H., Prajogo, S., Choi, Y. K., Hoch, J. S., & Prado, E. L. (2023). Effectiveness of digital mental health tools to reduce depressive and anxiety symptoms in low- and middle-income countries: Systematic review and meta-analysis. JMIR Mental Health, 10. https://doi.org/10.2196/43066 
  4. E-mental health. Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2023, June 21). https://mentalhealthcommission.ca/what-we-do/e-mental-health/#:~:text=e%2DMental%20health%20delivers%20timely,access%20and%20shorter%20wait%20times 
  5. Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. (n.d.). About MindSpot. MindSpot Clinic - Free Online Mental Health Support. https://www.mindspot.org.au/about-mindspot/ 
  6. Porcelli, R. (2023, July 30). Mental Health Treatment and Technology: Pros, Cons, and The Need For Innovation. LinkedIn. 
  7. Surani, A., Bawaked, A., Wheeler, M., kelsey, B., Roberts, N., Vincent, D., & Das, S. (2023). Security and privacy of Digital Mental Health: An analysis of web services and mobile apps. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4469981 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/mental-health-treatment-technology-pros-cons-need-rich-porcelli-lmhc/ 
  8. Lim, C., Fuchs, C., & Torous, J. (2024). Integrated Digital Mental Health Care: A Vision for addressing population mental health needs. International Journal of General Medicine, Volume 17, 359–365. https://doi.org/10.2147/ijgm.s449474 
  9. [See 8]

About the Author

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Charlotte Sparkes

Charlotte Sparkes is a full-time psychology and behavioural science student at McGill University. Interning at The Decision Lab as a Summer Content Associate, she is passionate about all things cognition. She is especially interested in the explicit and implicit factors required for decision-making. Through her work as a research assistant, Charlotte has gained practical experience in the field of social psychology, specifically testing participants on their empathic accuracy. In addition, she is the current president of the MPSA (McGill Psychology Students’ Association). In this role, she has worked on projects alongside professors to make research opportunities accessible to all students.

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