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Huge uptake in digital mental health services during lockdown - NZHIT

By Samantha Gee, 23 Aug 2021

Kiwis are increasingly turning to online mental health services for support as they grapple with the uncertainty brought on by the lockdown.

New figures show the uptake of digital mental health services increased substantially last year during Covid and that demand is already on the rise again.

New Zealand Health IT (NZHIT) chief executive Ryl Jensen said the study looked at the uptake of two free online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) services, Just a Thought in New Zealand and This Way UP in Australia.

Most users undertook self-guided courses for anxiety and depressive symptoms.

The New Zealand data showed a 630 percent increase in website views and a 185 percent increase in course registrations during last year's lockdown.

Among healthcare workers, there was a 144 percent increase in registrations and a 65 percent increase in prescribed courses for healthcare workers.

Jensen said the results highlighted the utility of digital mental health services, particularly during times of heightened distress.

"With a level four lockdown back again, New Zealanders can expect the use of digital mental health services to continue to grow as people seek support to get through this period of instability."

While there were tools out there people could access if they needed urgent help like the 1737 helpline, online therapy services enabled people to get started on a self-improvement journey straight away.

"You can answer some questions and start doing cognitive behavioural therapy and you can take little courses through an app."

The digital mental health tools complemented the overstretched health system and she wanted to see GPs recommend the services as an early intervention tool for those needing support with their mental wellbeing, Jensen said.

"It's all about being able to have accessible tools right there when you need them, as opposed to being told actually, there's a three month waiting list and I can't get you in for that amount of time."

Mental health clinician Anna Elders, who is also a lead for the Just a Thought tool, said there had been an increase in people wanting to find their own solutions when it came to seeking mental health help.

"Not only were people reaching out for the tools, but we were seeing substantial drops in their levels of distress."

Since the lockdown was announced on Tuesday, there had already been an increase in the number of people accessing the Just A Thought website.

The service enabled people to access structured, cognitive behavioural therapy courses with a focus on depression, generalised anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

It included lessons which focused on people's own experiences, then used cognitive behavioural therapy to develop the skills to face their own challenges.

"I think one of the things we struggle with most as human beings is uncertainty and we've got just so much of it at this point in time," Elders said.

For people that had already been struggling, the lockdown could be isolating and compound fears about their health, the health of those close to them and how long this might go on for.

While it didn't aim to replace face to face therapy with a clinician, Elders said there was evidence that showed e-CBT could be as effective as face to face treatment.

"The reality is that we need to reach more people, we need to extend services but we also need to provide services with a range of options, that can be accessed independently without relying on a referral from the GP or whoever it might be."

Online services offered flexibility for those who couldn't get to a clinician in working hours or were faced with a months-long wait list .

A mixed anxiety and depression course was about to be launched on Just a Thought and there were plans to develop further courses to address coping with pain, insomnia, mental health for young people along with a course from a Te Ao Māori perspective.

There were a number of other "really brilliant tools" available in New Zealand, including the online programme Melon which empowers people to reclaim their health, the Mentemia app, co-founded by Sir John Kirwan, coaches people to improve their mental wellbeing while the Small Steps online tool helps people manage stress, calm their mind and lift their mood, and Clearhead, a wellbeing assistant with a focus on mental health, she said.

Elders hoped to support the Ministry of Health to grow an ecosystem of digital tools and services that worked for those experiencing mental health problems and long term physical conditions.

"We're all looking to work together and make sure that we're developing tools that cater for a wide number of people or a wide number of challenges and we're creating something quite fresh and innovative specifically for the New Zealand culture."

New Zealand was only just beginning to realise the potential of digital health services to increase access to mental health support, she said.

This story was originally published on RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission.

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