Webwatch: New survey suggests accessing mental health support online has pros and cons

Most people who turned to digital mental health services during the pandemic would have preferred face-to-face care, but many liked shorter waiting times and convenient appointments, according to new data.

A poll for the charity Mind found that more than one in three (35%) people who sought mental health support online or over the phone during the pandemic found it difficult to use, while 23% believed their mental health worsened as a result of using remote services.

Of the almost 2,000 people surveyed, 63% would have preferred to have been given face-to-face support and one in 10 reported often or always having technological issues.

Meanwhile, one in three people (34%) said they were often or always worried about confidentiality.

However, there were positives to accessing digital care, with 69% of those surveyed appreciating not having to travel, 47% liked the greater flexibility over appointment times and 40% felt waiting times were shorter.

Geoff Heyes, head of health policy and influencing at Mind, said many people felt having choice helped “with things like childcare responsibilities and working schedules, particularly for those struggling to get to face-to-face appointments”.

But he added that other people had stressful experiences and breaches of confidentiality on calls.

“As restrictions continue to ease, and we begin to deal with the long-term impacts of the pandemic – bereavement, grief, redundancy and insecure employment – it’s really important everyone is offered a range of options, including face-to-face treatment, so that they can pick the most convenient and appropriate option,” he said.

“Online therapy cannot be seen as an easy answer to fixing growing pressures on overstretched mental health services. There is no cheap fix.”

It comes as separate research found that the amount of people suffering some form of psychological distress rose by almost 50% during the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in April 2020.

The prevalence of psychological distress among the population increased from 19% in 2019 to 28% in April 2020, according to the study from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of York.

However, the research found that levels of psychological distress had moved back towards pre-pandemic levels by the end of the first wave in July 2020.

Dr Apostolos Davillas, from the UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We found that many people’s mental health suffered during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In particular, we found that people’s ability to enjoy day-to-day activities and play a useful role were most impacted, along with concentration problems and being unhappy.

“We already knew that Covid-19 had caused more than 20,000 deaths in the UK at the peak of the first wave so there was an obvious impact already on wellbeing.

“Many people faced financial hardship, the stress of having children at home, isolation, and it all had an impact on the mental health of the nation.”

An NHS spokesman said: “NHS staff have supported people during this difficult period and adapted our mental health services to the challenges of the pandemic, offering remote consultations when clinically appropriate to maintain care while protecting patients and staff.

“Patients should now be offered a choice about how they access services to ensure they can get the most from their treatment and support. This is being built into all local plans as the NHS continues to expand mental health services as part of the Long-Term Plan.”

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