Doctor and patient having a telehealth session via laptop

Institutions, organisations and healthcare practices are increasingly using digital solutions to support people’s mental health — Dylan Ferreira | Unsplash

Demand for telehealth solutions has surged and circumstances have finally forced practitioners to migrate mental health services online.

Physical health has indeed been the most immediate concern for some time. However, the lockdown sprint has finally concluded and we now have entered the social-distancing marathon. As we enter this long haul phase, many of us are turning our attention to mental health.

Millions of people the world over have adjusted to new work situations during lockdown and many more face financial uncertainty, all the while concerns loom over the wellbeing of family and friends. It is therefore unsurprising that wellbeing apps and remote solutions have surged in demand in 2020.

Mental health apps surge in demand

One such mental health startup that has experienced such an increase in use is the telehealth platform Kara Connect. Headquartered in Copenhagen, the app directly connects healthcare professionals to patients to deliver therapy sessions. In March, the startup experienced a 15-fold increase in sign ups compared to February. Therapists and specialists accounted for the sudden rise as they rushed to find new means to care for existing patients while preparing for future demand.

Thorbjorg Vigfusdóttir, Kara Connect founder and Chief Executive, explained that: “A lot of the focus right now is to get health professionals online to help people that have the virus, or another health problem. But there are lots of other people that need help every week who are also missing sessions because of the virus.

“We are also seeing whole municipalities coming in, using Kara to get their professionals on board and connect them as a team to be able to service people at home. We’re seeing whole social work teams sign up to help children and those isolated in their homes, or those needing special services. Even whole clinics of professionals in speech therapy and psychology. We’re all working 24/7, until we just fall down,” she added.

Mental health sector holding back, until now

The mental health sector has experienced promising growth in recent years. Between 2014 and 2019, £2.04 billion was invested globally in mental health technologies. Moreover, this sum represented 15 per cent of overall investments in digital healthcare solutions during the period, according to a study released in January 2020 by investment and fund management company Octopus Group.

While the investment figures are impressive, there have been prior key issues holding back greater uptake of new technologies. Until now, the main challenge has been facilitating the transition from physical to online by mental healthcare workers.

Commenting on the sudden change, Ms Vigfusdóttir said that: “These professionals are usually very, very busy and have a very long waiting list. They don’t take the time out to enter a new workflow. This was our challenge and right now it’s exactly the opposite. It’s like, ‘When can I start? Can I start today?’ It’s completely flip-flopped from a few weeks ago.”

Wellbeing at education institutions and businesses

Mental health concerns in academia have been growing of late. Mental health service The Insight Network published the findings of the largest mental health poll ever conducted in March 2019. From the report, they concluded that the rate of psychological distress among university students is indeed on the rise.

In the corporate world, mental health has traditionally been something of a taboo subject. Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of employees and employers alike since mental health is the leading cause of workplace absence in the UK, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

Fortunately, a number of universities and organisations are taking positive steps towards making the mental health of staff and students a top priority. Part of this effort involves the inclusion of wellbeing startups to offer digital solutions and remote therapeutic support.

Discussing mental health support at academic institutions and businesses, Ms Vigfusdóttir explained that: “At Kara Connect, we have been working with organisations and institutions across Europe to ensure mental health support is easily available and accessible to all who need it. Councillors at Reykjavik University, for example, have been empowered by the platform to help support students online. This means that no matter where a student is located, they are able to access the support they need, and schedule remote sessions at convenient times.”

Mental health support in the medical and healthcare professions

Online connectivity tools have been scrutinised of late, with NHS trusts in England and Wales banning the use of the video communications service Zoom. Coupled with the rise in demand for digital healthcare solutions since the outbreak of COVID-19, the need for secure telehealth platforms among healthcare practitioners has surged exponentially.

Similarly to academic institutions, it is not only patients in need of support. NHS England recently announced a package of measures to support their 1.4m. staff. The team at Kara Connect have also seen high demand for support among professionals and mental health workers. Ms Vigfusdóttir noted that: “This is a need that we’ve seen for a while and now we are adding it.”

Looking ahead: change for the better

Demand for digital mental solutions is at an alltime high. That said, startup founders and healthcare workers are quietly conscious that an eventual return to normality will occur. When it does, therapists will once again be able to meet with patients face-to-face.

There is hope, however, that many people transitioning to online, remote healthcare solutions now will see the long-term value in digitising their workflow. These adopters, it is hoped, will continue to use digital healthcare solutions for all or specific parts of their work.

“We are, of course, expecting users who are just looking for a secure video service to maybe fall back [to previous practices]. But those that are really looking at this long term and looking at the whole idea of digitalising their workflow, I think they’re going to stay onboard,” Ms Vigfusdóttir concludes.