Authors: Global Alliance of Mental Illness Advocacy Networks (GAMIAN)-Europe, European Federation of Associations of Families of People with Mental Illness (EUFAMI), Expert Platform on Mental Health – Focus on Depression, and European College of Neuropsychopharmacology

Technology is an integral part of our lives. Most of us use smartphones and the internet daily. It has revitalised how we communicate and access information ­– and it has also brought great advances in healthcare.

Health and social services can integrate software to collect data and use digital tools to monitor care. There is significant potential for such technology in supporting people with depression, for whom access to services can be limited; and there may be stigma associated with asking for help.

Taking charge through innovation

Digital tools can empower people, as they are encouraged to take charge of their own care. Integrating technology can also help reduce stigma associated with depression.

For younger people, digital tools can help normalise their experience – online forums and chat rooms may help eliminate feelings of isolation by allowing people to communicate with peers who are facing the same challenges.

The flexibility offered by online interventions may also mean that more people are able to access and engage with services when they need them. Mobile apps such as Calm Harm, Stay Alive and What’s Up offer information, online counselling and crisis hotlines at all times. While apps are not a substitute for professional support, they can be beneficial – in the middle of the night, a person can open an app and find help immediately.

The Speech can Save campaign in Switzerland used algorithms to identify people at high risk of suicide via use of ‘trigger words’ on social media. If someone used specific trigger words associated with high risk of suicidal thoughts, they saw adverts for the campaign’s crisis hotline ­– leading to a 141% increase in young people calling the hotline due to suicidal thoughts. This demonstrates the potential impact of using digital data to target the provision of mental health support.

Not all innovation is digital, but technology can often add value to many interventions. The Neuroscience-based Nomenclature (NbN) project was developed to reduce the stigma associated with the common names of some types of medication, such as ‘antipsychotics’ and ‘antidepressants’. Renaming medicines with their pharmacological name promotes transparency, patient trust and adherence to treatment. The NbN project began with a taskforce publishing a peer-reviewed paper, and then used digital tools to support dissemination. A website and app were launched, helping the project to reach all over the world.

Digital innovation in mental health practice

Blended care – the use of digital tools to complement face-to-face care – can be extremely effective if implemented appropriately. It offers people more choice, flexibility and access to mental healthcare, and may also relieve pressure on already limited resources – for example, an online psychology app, such as iFeel, may help to reduce the need for appointments as they will occur only when need, not at arbitrary intervals.

Integrating digital innovation can be difficult in a traditional care structure, though, as some healthcare professionals may be reluctant to adopt new ways of working. They may also fear that monitoring tools could be used for performance review rather than collecting data on service quality and outcomes. It is therefore fundamental that staff be properly informed as to the purpose of new tools. Without buy-in from the professionals involved in delivering care, any new intervention is unlikely to be successful.

An effective use of blended care is demonstrated by eMen, which works with private and public partners across north-west Europe to pilot digital tools in real-world healthcare services. Therapists are trained to use the tools, which include online programmes, apps and games.

Crucial to the effectiveness of any new intervention is evaluation of its outcomes. In England, Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) is expanding access to services for depression. Data are systemically collected via a monitoring system and are then made available to the public. The results show that mental health can be treated and measured in the same way as physical health. This not only benefits people with depression – offering hope that they can recover – but also demonstrates the value of the intervention to policymakers, which is fundamental to ensure its sustainability.

These are just a few examples of how innovative digital tools have been integrated in mental health services. As technology is a fast-moving world, we are sure to see more discoveries and developments as service providers find new ways to use the enormous potential of digital tools to improve the lives of people with depression and support them to better manage their care.

Words to Actions series

This blog post is the second of a series accompanying policy briefs based on a report published last year by nine leading patient organisations in mental health across Europe. Future policy briefs and blogs are part of the Words to Actions series, which will focus on specific findings from the report, including suicide prevention, depression in youth, and integrated mental health services.