Chesterfields to computers: The rise of online mental health

Reclining on a psychologist’s couch may be the Hollywood style of therapy, but the rise of e-mental health is seeing many people trading chesterfields for computers. One in five Australians struggle with mental illness each year, but less than half seek treatment, according to Black Dog Institute figures, making the broad accessibility of online treatment a veritable game-changer.

Chris Rule, Western Sydney University Health Science graduate, manages the Black Dog Institutes e-health programs. He says organisations like his replace the oft-unreliable Dr Google with evidence-based mental health interventions which help reduce the access issues can that a lot of Australians face. People in rural and regional areas have limited, if any, access to psychologists and psychiatrists, says Chris.

Another barrier is the stigma around seeking help. Being able to access help in your own time and space can be an important first step, which is particularly useful for early intervention, says Chris. People look to the internet for health resources, so e-mental health programs can be their first-line support.

Beyond being a stepping stone to other treatments, online health interventions can be effective on their own, and in some cases superior to face-to-face therapies. Through e-mental health, we can deliver consistent, quality programs in line with best practice, he says. For mild to moderate depression, stress and anxiety, Black Dog Institute research suggests that some online programs can be as effective as taking antidepressant pills.

For example, myCompass, an online self-help tool, has received over 30,000 registrations since its 2012 launch. Using cognitive behavioural therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, problem-solving therapy and positive psychology, the tool provides simple strategies that can be used every day. Users can also track and understand the triggers behind their mental illness.

A new initiative is the We Feel project, a collaboration between the Black Dog Institute, Amazon and CSIRO which is looking at links between language used in social media, and public mental health trends. If there is a correlation, and we can map public health trends in real time using things like Twitter, we could be so much more responsive in our public health policies, Chris says. Currently, policies are informed by data that can be up to five years old.

Such programs are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Chris. There are so many ways to use online resources to assist in mental health treatment, he says. If we can break into that large percentage of people who don’t seek help for mental illness, the benefits would be immense.