Mental health - don't just integrate, innovate
The sheer number of people living unsupported with some form of psychological or emotional pain suggests that the traditional laws of supply and demand are not working in the mental health arena. As we close on May, as Mental Health Awareness Month, it is important that we raise public awareness of individuals struggling alone with poor mental health and acknowledge the need for a new paradigm that aligns society’s needs with widely available technological and social connectivity.
Today, nearly one in every five adults – over 40 million Americans – experience some form of mental illness in any given year. This is a diverse population. There are those with major psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, who may require professional in-person care, medication or even hospitalization. But there are also millions dealing with less acute conditions including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, panic disorders, seasonal affective mood swings, substance abuse or even troubled feelings that can be driven by work, school, relationship and financial issues.
Around half of these individuals never seek help and around three quarters never receive any form of treatment of support. For those that do, the main response is medication. There are multiple structural reasons why the majority of those with poor mental health suffer alone.
First, we don’t have enough mental health providers to help the number of people in distress. As a study by Mental Health America points out, approximately 100 million Americans live in areas with provider shortages, and this number is on the increase. And even beyond this problem, we also know that many people won’t seek traditional therapeutic assistance because of privacy concerns. Ours is a society that, unfortunately, still stigmatizes mental health challenges and many individuals elect not to seek help because they fear ramifications for their employment or social status.
Then there is also the issue of immediate access in the moments of greatest need. Moments of great depression or anxiety don’t respect conventional office hours. When those dark or anxious moments strike, too many people don’t know where to turn.
Looking at these barriers to improved well-being, there is a logical answer to be found in the power of the Internet to enable people to gain an immediately accessible, confidential linkage to mental health resources. Instead of leaving those with behavioral health challenges to suffer in isolation, the computer, tablet or smartphone can be the conduit through which people can develop the ability to better manage their conditions and achieve a brighter emotional outlook.
This isn’t simply theoretical. In the United Kingdom, my company, Big White Wall, has worked with the National Health Service, the armed services and major employers to make web-based mental health and well-being services widely available. Users can fill the “wall” with bricks on which they share their feelings (73 percent told us in a survey they were discussing particular issues for the first time in their lives) with words or images, connect anonymously with those facing similar challenges, and access evidence-based, professionally-reviewed tools, information, assessments and courses to help with their conditions. There are programs for a wide range of behaviorally-related challenges, from weight loss to smoking cessation. Everyone is kept safe and engaged through 24/7 professionally trained clinicians who facilitate the service and escalate those in more serious danger of harm to self or other.
This readily and constantly available as well as completely confidential online service is filling a need. More than nine of ten of our U.K. members said they felt an improved sense of well-being after utilizing the various tools and networking resources on the site.
What we’re seeing is that utilizing the Internet to address mental health needs can help alleviate the current strain on traditional resources. By providing an avenue for those with low-acuity behavioral health issues to develop their own pathway to improved well-being, the ‘bricks and mortar’ mental health system can more effectively focus its attention on those with more serious clinical illnesses.
Can the United States benefit by deploying the power of Internet to strengthen societal mental health the way the United Kingdom has? Now, we’re finding out. Big White Wall has recently opened offices in New York’s tech-centric Union Square neighborhood and is already serving contractsin the US, not so subtly sending a message that the mental health system in this country could use a strong dose of innovation.