Is online support part of a more humane approach to mental health?
There has rarely been such a spotlight on the need for robust support for mental health as in recent months. When members of the Royal Family make a concerted effort to share their own struggles through grief and depression, it opens up a wider opportunity to examine how we care for mental health disorders as a society. Commonly, support has focused on clinical and ‘talking therapies’ like counselling, yet the role of peer to peer support – speaking to those with real life experiences – has never been more popular and evidence is growing of the importance of talking to peers as part of someone’s treatment.
Since 2015 there has been a substantial growth is the use of online peer to peer support within mental health and a real movement and change in attitudes towards its use as a support tool. Our website, HealthUnlocked, has seen 41 per cent more people turning to their online social network for help with anxiety, depression or mental health in the past year alone, and in a recent survey found 68 per cent of people were now turning to online support in addition to taking the advice of their clinicians. Additionally, over 80 per cent of people said they found online communities useful in managing their own mental health.
Until relatively recently the idea of using social media to support mental health would be a red flag for most people. Questions over information quality, anonymity, mood fluctuation and the subjective aspect of mental health would be too much to consider. But after some early bumps in the road, the idea of positive online support from people sharing mental health experiences on the web has proved irrepressible. The value of ‘me too’ in a population typically living in isolation is difficult to put a number on. And the game changer came in the form of dedicated health social networks, a safe space with the expert support and moderation that came with them.
Within HealthUnlocked, someone posts on the platform every 20 seconds and eight people will read a shared post about depression or anxiety in any given minute. In the last month alone, over 200,000 people have read about anxiety experiences on HealthUnlocked. Isolation is consistently cited as the main reason people visit the platform, and in mental health this is particularly striking. The stigma that often comes with admitting you have a mental health condition can exacerbate that feeling of isolation, such that a source of online support you can get whether it’s 2am or 2pm can be like an oasis in a desert. It’s easy to understand their surge in popularity.
This growth has not gone unnoticed by clinicians and healthcare commissioners and more doctors are directing their patients towards this support and discussions on their potential going right to very heart of government. Last week NHS Improvement and the Health Foundation announced an ‘Improvement Lab’ to address UK-wide health and health care challenges. As part of it they will be testing new ideas to improve or expand peer support within the NHS. We are currently rolling out a first of its kind, peer support ‘prescription’ which includes mental health, with NHS organisation Care City – trialing it in a population of one million in North East London. People within the area will be offered a range of peer support and directed to mental health online communities as part of their regular GP or clinical appointment.
The future impact of dedicated social networks within mental health is already exciting. As more people turn to them and share their experience, the value of them will continue to grow. Combined with traditional methods of support and treatment they can contribute to a more holistic approach to mental health that can change outcomes and experiences for the millions of people affected.
HealthUnlocked is supporting the Shaw Mind Foundation’s government petition to make mental health education compulsory in all UK schools.This is a guest article by Alexa Chaffer, Head of Communications, HealthUnlocked