The NHS Confederations’ Mental Health Network and the Department of Health has concluded that there is significant potential for digital technologies to improve and transform mental health services and has called for a national framework for e-mental health to be established.

Cultural transformation

According to the report, 'E-mental health: what’s all the fuss about?', the use of information and communication technologies (ICT), including social media and smartphone applications, to support and improve mental health, will help address resource challenges and provide better ways of delivering care and support for patients.

E-mental health has the potential to underpin a "cultural transformation" and a move towards a social model of health, by enabling service users greater choice and control and to manage their own conditions more effectively.  Smartphone apps that track mood changes, online platforms offering peer support, and the computerised monitoring of symptoms are ways by which more people with mental health conditions could be given the support they need in a convenient and mobile form.

Growing incidence

The authors of the report have called for a national framework for e-mental health to provide the necessary platform for change which they believe is particularly pressing given the rising demand on services in a period of financial austerity.

Meeting rising demand, and ensuring more people have access to support and treatment, is a significant future challenge for the mental health sector.  The proportion of people considered to have a common mental disorder is increasing as are the economic and social costs; the Centre for Mental Health estimates that costs were approximately £106 billion in the financial year 2009-2010 in England alone.

At the same time, funding for such services in the NHS in England over the current spending review period has remained level, and so efficiency savings are essential to meet demand.  The report warns that "improving the mental health of the nation, and keeping pace with rising demand, is unlikely to be met through existing models of service delivery”, but, by making the most of the opportunities on offer through e-mental health, "we can address some of the biggest future resource challenges facing the mental health sector – for example, the costs of service delivery, workforce issues, access to services and continuity of care".

Starting the debate

A comprehensive mapping exercise is now underway that will consider the technology currently in use and analyse the gap that exists between the present position and the vision for the future.  Stakeholders and industry are being asked to contribute and more information is due to be announced shortly.

Download and read the report here.