The growing importance of eMental health solutions

Scott Arrol

August 24, 2020

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the increasing issues related to mental health and addiction being experienced by so many people living in New Zealand was cause for major concern.

This was recognised by the government when, in the first wellbeing budget of 2018 a very large sum of money was committed to target increased services to be provided across multiple agencies.  

This included health, justice, police and social welfare who were tasked with pulling together their planning and resources to create a wider, cross-government approach recognising that issues related to mental health and addiction are not limited to only one agency in particular.

Vote Health received a proportionally larger allocation for obvious reasons to support several initiatives including providing more and changed services targeted at the primary care level.

Raising stress levels

The pandemic has elevated this situation even further and there is a growing concern that the current change to Covid-19 levels will add further stresses onto those already struggling to cope.  Let alone adding to the burden of those who may already be at a tipping point.  Furthermore, the uncertainty caused by the current situation is further accentuated by thoughts that going in and out of Covid-19 levels may become a part of our lives over the foreseeable future.

An already stretched mental health and addiction service sector is going to be called upon to take up even more of the heavy lifting to provide as much support as possible to an ever-increasing number of New Zealanders. A key component of the additional funding in 2018 was based on adding more people into the system to provide these services. Whilst this is a worthy approach these people also require the necessary tools to be able to cope with existing demands that are only going to increase.

Digital solutions

This is where eMental health solutions have come into their own over the past few months and will continue to do so for a long time to come. For context, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined eMental health as “mental health services and information delivered or enhanced through the internet and related technologies”. This is a succinct definition that clearly positions eMental health as a key enabler of a range of services to people based on their mental health and addiction needs.

By the way, these solutions have not suddenly appeared out of the ether to meet the current demand. Clever, innovative, and hardworking people have been grafting at the interface of mental health services and technology for many years.  

In some cases, they have raised personal loans, mortgaged their houses and convinced others to back them financially as they were absolutely committed to the benefits their digital solutions would provide to this sector.

Like everyone in the health and disability system, they are passionate about doing their best so others can benefit when these services are needed the most.  Little did they know when they first started their journey that their efforts and investment would prove to be so important when New Zealand experienced its first major pandemic in modern times.

Industry engagement

To support the growth of eMental health solution providers, NZHIT has established a special eMental Health Industry Group.  Amongst other goals, this group aims to provide an avenue to engage with and contribute to the direction of eMental health activities, strategy and service developments that will enhance the provision of these services nationally, and internationally where appropriate (a copy of the full terms of reference and membership schedule can be accessed by clicking on the above link).

The individual members of this group are unified in their view that the provision of high-quality mental health and addiction services in this country is an extremely high-level priority that impacts across all of society.

As such, they have come together in this group to provide a collegial and collaborative approach to ensure that eMental health solutions are fit for purpose and effectively enable mental health services provided by hard working health workers each and every day.

Two members of this group, Anna Elders and Anil Thapliyal, have provided their thoughts in the Digital Health Insights with Scott Arrol podcast series focusing on eMental health. These are excellent interviews and can be accessed at episode 29 and episode 22 respectively.

Supporting services

The recent eHealthNews article titled ‘pandemic prompts thousands to use eMental health tools’ does an excellent job of describing some of the available solutions and outlines other services that the government has supported to provide targeted support to a range of people in need.  

It almost goes without saying that the efforts of the National Telehealth Service and the likes of its 1737 Need to Talk service must not be forgotten amongst all of this as they have been required to shoulder a heavy load as well.

Robyn Shearer, Deputy Director General Mental Health and Addiction, is providing excellent leadership and support to the eMental health space. Along with other key leaders, she will be a presenter at the free Live Webinar on eMental Health and the pandemic at 12.30pm on Wednesday September 2nd.  This will be a worthwhile event to attend to learn more about what is happening now and in the future.

Scott Arrol is the CEO of New Zealand Health IT (NZHIT).

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