The question “How are you feeling?” is one of the more common enquiries we’re likely to get. Yet, it’s often harder to open up about real emotions, especially when we’re struggling, than it is to discuss our physical health.
For young people, this can be especially difficult. Nearly one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, and, according to the Mental Health Foundation, millennials are the most vulnerable group. It’s shocking that suicide is now the leading cause of death among young people aged 20 to 34 in the UK.
One of the problems is that it has become increasingly difficult to access specialist mental health services, despite early diagnosis and intervention being crucial to preventing long-term conditions. According to research published by the Education Policy Institute last week, around a quarter of children referred to the NHS for mental health treatment are being turned away, often because their condition is not considered serious enough. Theresa May’s Conservative Manifesto promised to rectify this by introducing the first new Mental Health Bill for 30 years. It aims to give patients access to services on the NHS that treat mental and physical health conditions equally and to the same standard.
Certainly, a service which gives equal recognition to mental health is long overdue. But for this to succeed in a climate where the provision of all health services is under increasing strain and resources are limited, we also need to find ways to improve and innovate mental health support through technology.
While digitisation and the application of technology has increased efficiency in the health care sector, mental health technology has lagged behind. Technology can offer a gateway to professional services for young people, allowing them to monitor their health, find ways of coping and to access support when they need it. As well as linking them with 24/7 crisis centres and online self-help, digital services can reduce barriers such as social stigma. That ability to open up anonymously is often a huge benefit and can represent an important step on the path to getting help.
With this new frontier, however, comes uncertainty. There is very little industry regulation and information on app effectiveness, which can lead consumers to wonder which apps they should trust, and so must tread with caution.
We also need to get better at recognising the signs of common mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, bullying, self-harm and eating disorders, and encourage people to talk about the problems they’re facing without being fearful of their feelings being dismissed or judged. As a parent, I know it’s enormously important to listen to children when they have a problem, and let them know that you’re there for them. I would urge all parents to explore the range of material on mental health that’s available online if they are concerned about a loved one.
While the overall number of people with mental health problems has not changed significantly in recent years, worries about money and jobs can make it harder for people to cope. And this is especially so in metropolitan centres. I speak to a network of personal trainers in London on a daily basis through my work to run an exercise app called TruBe, and know that many of their clients use exercise to help them cope with the hectic nature of urban living. The expectation of being a high achiever and having a busy social life makes the most of what big cities have to offer, but it can sometimes feel overwhelming.
While I firmly believe that technology can play a part in the solution, it’s also part of the problem. Most parents express concerns that their children are spending too much time online, and their fears are confirmed in a survey by the Royal Society for Public Health in conjunction with the Young Health Movement, which found that the most popular forms of social media can harm young people’s mental health. Constant communication via platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter were found to deepen feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Riding the emotional rollercoaster of being a teenager is hard enough, but that level of scrutiny can exacerbate young people’s body image worries, make them vulnerable to bullying, and expose them to sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.
Increased awareness of mental health has come through the dedicated work of the many organisations in this field, some of whom are exploring digital support to broaden their services. It’s now time for innovators to harness the technological expertise that’s been developed around health services to make a real contribution to support people with mental health as well.