Last year’s World Mental Health Day event in the European Parliament “Mental health and young people in the digital age: addressing risks, seizing opportunities”, was a welcome occasion to discuss the growing impact of digitalization on mental health. Mental health issues are consistently neglected when considering public health concerns, even though approximately 27% of the adult population in the European region experienced at least one episode of mental illness in the past year’.
Mental health conditions are often complex and highly personal, making it a challenge to create an e-mental health sector. E-therapies have been designed to help patients with mental health conditions, in particular, for those struggling with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. However, these therapies need to respect the same rules and standards which are applied to treatments provided face-to-face, and at the moment, there is no clear agreement on how they should be regulated, although the 2015 Joint Action on Mental Health and Well-being called for the establishment of a quality seal for e-therapies and for guidance that can be used across the EU.
There is an impressive diversity of so-called ‘health and wellness’ apps. Depending on the purpose they are designed to serve, we find applications aimed at teaching breathing, sleeping and relaxation techniques (e.g. mindfulness, meditation) that can be especially useful for people under stress. Often, they might be the first step for a patient to take control of their mental health condition but in most cases their quality has not been evaluated and hence cannot be viewed as a credible treatment option.
Second thoughts about e-mental health
An important principle that should not be forgotten is ‘what helps me might not help you’. The vast majority of apps remain rather general in orientation in order to attract and increase the number of potential users.
In the light of scarce scientific evidence on the efficacy of e-mental health interventions, psychologists and health professionals often question their credibility and potential added value. The fact that technological development is so fast does not make things easier, as scientific studies cannot keep up. Nonetheless, it will become more important for mental health professionals to be familiar with digital solutions so they can make appropriate recommendations, according to what is available in the marketplace.
E-interventions can be used to create a safe and anonymous platform for people experiencing mental health conditions to connect with others and more easily share their personal problems through online forums or helplines. However, cyberbullying, harassment or hate speech are also very real dangers. Such cruel online behaviours can have a devastating impact on people’s mental health, their identity and development.
As investment in this area increases, more guidelines are needed. Digital tools for mental health should not be the only source of information or a substitute for face-to-face contact, especially with health specialists. Rather they should complement established therapies and be used as an additional way to raise awareness about mental health issues.
Policy Officer for Health Systems