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Katelyn Cameron writes on technology breaking down barriers to mental health support

BRAIN

To battle the shortcomings of the mental health care system in Australia, non-government organisations such as The Black Dog Institute, beyondblue, and ReachOut have created an impressive number of free or low cost digital technologies to help people deal with mild to moderate mental illness.

While one in five Australians suffer from mental illness, only a fraction of those seek orthodox counselling and treatment. Cost, access, stigma and information are the usual barriers to seeking help. Technology is now being harnessed to overcome them.

“Online therapy is a relatively new way of tackling the symptoms of poor mental health,” says chief scientist and director of The Black Dog Institute, Professor Helen Christensen, “but people have taken it up quite willingly.”

Black Dog’s myCompass is an interactive self-help program that can be accessed via computer, mobile phone or tablet. The program is designed to help people suffering from stress, anxiety, or depression to alleviate their symptoms. thedesk, created by beyondblue, is an online program that provides Australian tertiary students with strategies to maintain their wellbeing. ReachOut’s Breathe app can relieve that racing heart you get when you’re feeling anxious by helping you to slow down your breathing. These are just a few examples of the many mental health apps available online.

But just how effective are they at treating mental illness?

Very, according to experts.

“Self-directed online therapy is suitable for people experiencing mild to moderate illness but also as an adjunct therapy to people with more serious illness who are under the care of a mental health clinician. It is particularly suitable for people who have limited access to face-to-face care (due to geography, illness or financial reasons for example),” says Christensen.

Kayla Roberts, 22, suffers from anxiety and depression, and uses a meditation app called Smiling Mind to manage her symptoms, along with a sleeping app called Pzizz.

“The sleeping app works pretty well for me, it’s a 99 per cent hit rate so far for getting me to sleep within 10 minutes, and that’s in varied states of calm, anxiety attacks and severe depressive episodes.”

However, not all mental illness can be effectively managed using an app on a phone or an online program. Bronwyn Robson is a mental health nurse at Gosford Hospital who works with people suffering from serious mental illnesses on a daily basis. She believes there is a role for digital technologies in treating mental health, but doubts that they should constitute patients’ entire course of treatment.

“If you’re face-to-face, you can develop a rapport with someone, the barriers of suspicion and trust get broken down, and you can develop what we call a therapeutic relationship with them, and I think that might be more difficult when it’s online,” she says.

Associate head of the University of Sydney’s Clinical Psychology Unit, Professor Caroline Hunt, agrees. She says online technologies are suitable only when there are “no complicating comorbid problems.” People with trauma history, drug and alcohol problems, personality disorders, or severe depression are unlikely to experience any benefits from digital technologies. Young people at ease with apps, along with those who have not had mental health problems for years, are more likely to respond well to digital technologies.

For people suffering from moderate mental illness, an app on their phone or a course of online treatment may prove very useful. If not the complete solution, they could still be used as a supplement to face-to-face therapy. For others, face-to-face treatment, medication, or a combination of both, is the only option. Online technology’s emergence shouldn’t mean more-involved treatments aren’t still affordable and available to every Australian.

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