As a Clinician and a former Health Minister, I know first-hand that there is no health without mental health. I have seen the burden of mental health in children, adolescents and adults and it is clear that the advances in physical health that I have witnessed in my career have not been fully matched in mental health.

Amidst the current global crisis, we have seen a rise in the number of people struggling with significant mental health, financial, social and physical health burdens, and the potential toll has come to the forefront of our minds.

Recent ONS data highlighted that around 1 in 5 adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021, more than double that observed before the coronavirus pandemic. Certain groups within society have been hit particularly hard, including young people, those on low incomes and people from racialised communities.

What’s more, the Centre for Mental Health forecasts that 10 million people in England alone, including 1.5 million children and young people, will need support for their mental health as a direct result of the pandemic over the next three to five years. The impact of Covid-19 will exacerbate the current demand for mental health services, placing further strain on an already overstretched system, and making investments in prevention of heightened importance.

Crucial to meeting this surge in demand for mental health services, and ensuring these services meet the diverse needs of those who are most at risk, will be the provision of innovative and accessible support at scale. Digital mental health services will therefore be pivotal.

More traditional mental health services, while absolutely vital, are not always easy or appropriate for people to access. Barriers including long waiting lists, the need to physically attend appointments, inflexible appointment times and stigma around getting help can be insurmountable for some people.

Digital innovation will be integral to meeting future demand for services

Technology, however, can circumnavigate many of these barriers. While not suitable for everyone, digital services can enable people to access mental health information and support whenever they need it, day or night. They can also improve access to support for people who face physical barriers to using face-to-face services and can be a discreet and confidential way of getting help when stigma is a challenge. These factors are particularly important for underserved communities, who are often the most in need of support but also the least likely to use more traditional mental health services.

The pandemic saw a seismic shift towards digital in all areas of our lives, from teaching school pupils online and video conferencing in workplaces, to online supermarket shopping and telephone GP appointments. And mental health support was no exception. Indeed, Shout 85258, the UK’s first text messaging support service for anyone in the UK who is struggling to cope, reported a doubling of conversations at the peak of the pandemic.

74% of these conversations were outside the hours of 9am-5pm and predominantly mentioned suicide, depression and anxiety, indicating a demand for 24-hour mental health support and highlighting the vital role digital services can play in preventing mental health crises by helping people in the very moment they need it.

Digital mental health support can save lives. During the pandemic, 12-year-old Jack (not his real name) had begun experiencing severe anxiety. He spent increasing amounts of time on his own, no longer connecting with his friends online or on the phone, and struggling with online school. Jack became anxious about the future and whether life would ever get back to some sort of normality. Things had become so difficult for him that, one evening, he decided to end his life. It was while Jack was standing on a bridge that he sent Shout a text message. The volunteer who responded to Jack guided him to a calmer place and worked with him to stop, take stock and find the courage to phone the emergency services, who came and helped him.

Many children, young people and adults across the UK are experiencing mental distress, and technology provides us with a unique opportunity to utilise up-to-the-minute data to help us better understand the scale of their mental health needs and experiences. This, in turn, can provide an invaluable evidence base for the development of services to support mental health.

Remote services like Shout 85258 are a lifeline

At the Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London, we are privileged to partner with charities including Mental Health Innovations, which powers Shout 85258, in a shared vision for research and innovation to improve understanding of the mental health of the population.

Although there is much work still to do, this positive impact of digital services, together with a growing appetite to realise the enormous potential for heightened impact, augurs well for tangible progress ahead in tackling this most important challenge.