How to leverage tech to scale up your approach to mental healthcare

Pretty much everyone will have mental health challenges at some point in their life - however, not everyone has access to mental healthcare. There simply aren’t enough therapists to go around. Even among those with access, finding your way to the right services for your needs at the right moment is a ‘friction-full’ experience. It is a frustrating process for many and is often overly complex. In the private domain, it’s likely to involve a stress-provoking search through therapist websites. Friends call me to ask how to do it. Or have me do it for them. It’s a very messy terrain for people who aren’t familiar with how it works.

Tech really does offer us a good slice of the solution to this problem. By incorporating tech into mental health and well-being services employers can offer people relief from distress, at the same time as reaping the benefits of increased productivity and a focused, supported workforce. The value on investment is obvious. Tech can indeed remove friction in mental health support. Firstly, tech can create a ‘digital front door.’ At the front door (a phone, a tablet or a laptop) employees can discreetly evaluate their needs, completing valid assessments online, which can help them understand their level of distress.

Tech can then help signpost them to the next best step for help. Secondly, tech holds another golden key - resources and help can be organised and provided at scale, across a whole workforce. Thirdly, tech can actually help therapists improve the care they provide. ‘Digitally Enabled Therapies’ or ‘DET’s’ as they are known in therapy circles, have digital technology that can help a great deal with psycho-education, helping people set and stay on track with goals or stay in touch with their therapists via messaging.

We simply have not had the means to construct this method of delivery until fairly recently, with the advent of smart algorithms, and cutting-edge technology designed for health use. But we do now. And it is morally and economically imperative we get right on with it.

The way people access mental healthcare has evolved

Think about what we know about the way we use mental health services. Over half of employees (59%) have experienced mental health challenges. But a nearly identical percentage of people struggling, 58%, say they will not seek face-to-face help. It’s important to understand people’s reasons. Many still fear stigma, lack confidence in care and some prefer for self-help. The way people use mental healthcare is changing. And people are more open to a human-tech hybrid approach.

To make mental health services truly accessible, inclusive and effective for all employees, our approach to providing support must also be flexible and easy-to-navigate. This means that the standard approach to supporting mental health - with in-person assessments and referrals to therapy only, isn’t the right fit anymore for many employees.

The current approach to mental healthcare creates significant gaps

Unfortunately, there is more bad news. If employees try to get help via the public or private health systems, the wait times alone are months. This means that by the time most people receive support, their condition will likely have worsened. They are likely to go off sick during the wait. Their families also start to suffer.

The reality that we have to do better became clear during my 20 years as a psychologist working in the UK’s much loved public health system. I loved it too—but it was apparent that there was no way we could meet demand and help everyone who needed it within the confines of the current one-to-one, in-person-only approach. This simply relies too heavily on a limited supply of human clinicians and people’s limited ability (given work and family commitments) to engage with fixed outpatient style support.

When people are struggling, the complexity involved in navigating the route to care can be especially problematic. You have someone who is already stressed, potentially overwhelmed by their circumstances, who doesn’t really know what help they require and doesn’t know where to get it. You’re going to ask them to navigate a system that obliges them to figure it out themselves? Many will end up going without care until they feel much, much worse.

Employers are uniquely positioned to support mental health

Employers are uniquely positioned to very positively influence mental health and support their employees - after all, most of us spend around a third of our lives at work. However, while many employers have increased their investment in mental health in recent years, 75% of employees feel employer-provided support is inadequate and too narrow in scope, focusing only on one end of the mental health continuum. Nearly seven out of 10 workers say they don’t use benefits to their total value because they’re too time-consuming, confusing, or cumbersome.

Easy-to-navigate digital-first support allows potentially all employees to access mental health intervention discreetly and efficiently as soon as they need it. An employer-provided, digitally facilitated mental well-being and mental health service makes early intervention possible. This can be done via guided self-help apps for example. It makes quick access to clinicians possible when it’s needed. It makes Digitally Enabled Therapy possible. What it needs is bold commitment from employers. And some ‘know-how’ from providers who are making it their mission to get the right care to people at the right time; which is fast.

Three critical considerations for the use of technology to scale up mental healthcare

To effectively support employee mental health, you and the technology you employ must have your workforce’s trust. There are tens of thousands of digital mental health tools on the market. To first do no harm - here are some guiding questions to ask:

Are services and resources backed by evidence?

Although many claim to be evidence-based, relatively few are backed by sufficient evidence - less than 3% of solutions available on the market. Ideally, apps which support wellbeing or enable therapy will have undergone randomised controlled trials published in leading peer-reviewed publications and have favourable evaluations from expert third-party reviewers and end-users.

Is the provider team competent, ethical and inclusive?

Does the provider team have experienced clinicians as leaders in Director posts and above? Does the provider team have experienced advisors on the advisory board? Checking into a provider’s ethics and inclusion is essential. How providers treat and use user data is vital to keeping employees’ private information private and maintaining their trust. Ensuring technology is inclusive - i.e., increases access to needed support instead of limiting it in a different way is also crucial. When vetting new providers, consider languages offered, the range of services included, the reading level required, and device compatibility. Technology can make inclusion more possible with flexible, accessible resources - helping everyone, not just those in greatest need of support.

Is the service designed in a personalised flexible way?

A flexible system of care should be able to measure employees’ needs at a ‘digital front door’. It should offer a digitally guided level of self-care, for example, through a properly tested app. If more help is needed it should connect employees to clinicians. It could offer ‘digitally enabled’ therapies, with all the benefits of more continuous support. It should monitor outcomes and be transparent about them.

Is there support available to ensure maximum uptake and engagement?

Without uptake and ongoing engagement, even the best tech won’t help you scale up your approach to mental healthcare. For tools and services to benefit employees who need support, they must actually use them. They must be able to intuitively navigate to the care that they need. For specific insights into average uptake, how care pathways work, and the support a provider offers your in-house team to increase your engagement and measure your value on investment, you’ll likely need to ask directly. When properly vetted, technology can help breach existing gaps in traditional care, organise it effectively and scale up access to reach more people, quicker - easing the load of busy human resources teams, bringing real and valuable care to your employees and contributing to a healthy work environment, where people belong and are able to do their very best.

This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe