The recent publication of the Children’s Rights Alliance’s annual report card on Ireland once again highlighted how demand for children’s mental health services is exceeding capacity. With more than 7,000 children waiting for an appointment with a primary care psychologist, and nearly 2,500 waiting to be seen by specialist child and adolescent mental health services, Ireland’s public health system clearly has been unable to cope with current mental health need.
As the national coalition advocating for better mental health services in Ireland, Mental Health Reform (www.mentalhealthreform.ie) seeks innovative solutions to this urgent social problem. Inevitably, there are calls for more staff for Irish public mental health services, and this must form part of the solution. But we are living in a new era for mental health, one in which more and more people feel comfortable asking for help. The greater openness to mental health is leading to increased demand for help which will inevitably require a radical re-think on how we provide supports, and how we prevent mental distress from arising in the first place.
Encouragingly, both professionals and people who use mental health services are exploring innovative responses to meet the need and improve outcomes. And Ireland’s creativity is coming to the fore in this arena.
One of the most exciting new ways to deliver mental health support is the use of digital technology to assist mental health care (eMental Health). Digital technology has the potential to be a game-changer in two ways: firstly, by dramatically increasing the reach of mental health interventions and secondly, by empowering people in the process of their own mental health treatment.
There are a wide range of ways that technology is already being used for mental health support: online or app-based cognitive-behavioural therapy programmes (such as Aware’s Lifeskills Course), self-help apps, telepsychiatry utilising videoconferencing to enable distance consultation, computerised co-decision-making tools that give service users a greater voice in clinical meetings; telecounselling to provide therapy via videochat (MyMind), online platforms for social prescribing to help GPs refer people to community supports (Elementalsoftware.co), and the use of virtual reality and gaming technology as part of therapy such as Pesky gNATs.
Digital technology is also already playing a big role in prevention and stigma-reduction in Ireland through educational sites such as Spunout and A Lust for Life, as well as in peer support through online support groups.
Of course, there are also many concerns about how digital technology, particularly social media platforms, may be negatively impacting on people’s mental health. How can privacy be secured for individuals who avail of digital technology as part of their treatment? How can we ensure that people are protected from harm on social media platforms? A good national policy on eMental Health is vital to ensure that technological developments foster the benefits and empower the individual user, while minimising the risks. That’s why Mental Health Reform is working to make sense of this diverse potential through our participation in the eMEN project. Learning from our peers across North West Europe will strengthen the development of Ireland’s eMental Health policy. Our participation will also help to ensure that developers’ interest in eMental Health is increased and that their efforts fit with the values of Ireland’s national mental health policy. In this way, the eMEN project will help mental Health Reform to support the best use of digital technology to boost mental health in Ireland and across North West Europe.