Surge in use of online mental health services during COVID-19 pandemic

There has been a surge in the use of online mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research, as millions of people unable to access traditional services have sought help from digital providers.

The study – involving insights from 20 countries and potentially more than 50 million users – included a range of digital services such as patient-to-clinician platforms, digitally-enabled treatments, mental health and wellbeing apps, financial services providers, chatbots and social support networks.

The preliminary results paint a troubling and at times bleak picture of the impact that the pandemic is having on people’s mental health – but they also capture positive aspects, such as peer-to-peer support or virtual companionship for older adults.

“If we’re to be ready for the pandemic’s long-lasting impact on mental health, we need an accurate and broad picture of the situation we’re facing,” said Dr Becky Inkster of the University of Cambridge, who led the study. “We’ve shown that it’s possible for a large number of providers to work together across borders to rapidly gather valuable insights – this could be used to set up an integrated digital system to better understand and respond to people’s mental health needs on a global scale in real-time.”

Prior to the pandemic, mental health was already a global crisis with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting that almost 1 billion people globally had a mental health disorder, and that depression was already projected to become the leading cause of disease burden globally by 2030.

There is mounting evidence that mental health problems have become more common during the pandemic. Millions have lost loved ones, and survivors are at increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. Lockdowns have separated people from family, friends, and schools, while leaving some trapped in abusive situations or turning to self-destructive behaviours. Many people have lost, or are at risk of losing, their jobs and face serious financial difficulties.

The researchers say that digital providers can address delays in mental healthcare, and deliver frontline services by offering support, treatment and real-time monitoring. Such services can also detect how people react to events that affect their lives – for example, one peer mental health support network reported a substantial increase in suicidal posts soon after schools closed in March 2020.

“This study provides an insight into the mental health and wellbeing challenges that people are facing during this pandemic – by bringing together data and learning from a large group of digital service providers, it provides a good sense of what is going on under the tip of the iceberg,” said The University of Manchester’s Dr Terry Hanley, a Counselling Psychology expert involved in the research.