Due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, many patients undergoing talking therapies have been unable to see their therapists in person for several weeks. Amanda, who preferred to remain anonymous, is a UK resident who has been receiving ongoing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for four months to treat anxiety and low mood. Social distancing measures mean she and her therapist are now communicating remotely instead.

Despite some technical letdowns from popular video-conferencing app Zoom, Amanda has ultimately found the new format to be quite useful.

“I find digital contact and video calls much easier and less anxiety-inducing,” she says. “Doing it from the comfort of your bed or sofa is actually brilliant – and I can take down as many notes as I want without someone looking at me do it. I used to be absolutely beside myself travelling to and from in-person therapy, especially if I had to go to work straight after. It takes the human-to-human pressure off, too – and if you’re socially anxious, that’s absolutely golden.”

Social distancing means digital therapy

Social distancing measures mean that a lot of people receiving talking therapies have switched to digital formats like these for the time being. The NHS has been employing digital mental health solutions like this for a while now, with organisations like Big White Wall and Ieso Digital Health partnering with the service to give patients access to talking therapies from the comfort of their own homes.

Ieso announced on 20 March that it was doubling its therapist capacity to address access challenges for people living with depression and anxiety while regular treatment pathways are disrupted.

Ieso head of partnerships James de Bathe says: “Mental health treatment pathways across the NHS are starting to change and services are working hard to adapt quickly. Despite the challenges around access, we have seen an overall uplift of around 40% on our usual referral rate over the past few days, which we anticipate will continue to increase.”

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Ieso is currently offering its support to all NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) while they implement mental health contingency plans, including the ones it hasn’t already partnered with. The company has also started a vlog series sharing its clinical experience and best practice on moving talking therapies to remote platforms.

Is digital therapy here to stay?

It’s fair to say that Covid-19 is having a fairly drastic impact on society’s collective mental health, and life for everybody is likely to remain very strange for at least several more weeks – its effects aren’t just confined to people with a pre-existing diagnosis.

Ieso clinical director Shazna Khanom says: “For some people Covid-19 will exacerbate pre-existing conditions like OCD, health anxiety, PSTD related to being in hospitals and traumatic bereavement.

“For others they may start feeling a dip in their mental health for the first time as they are forced to be away from friends, family and work.”

As such, more and more people are likely to reach out to services like Ieso’s in the coming months. Even pre-coronavirus, soaring statistics indicate that an increasing number of patients are being referred for mental health treatment – strikingly, SEMrush data reveals that UK google searches for ‘calling in sick mental health’ increased by 4,400% between 2016 and 2019.

Digital mental health solutions have several unique benefits. They’re discreet, meaning people can avoid the perceived stigma that can come with being seen walking into a therapist’s office. If illness or geographical inconvenience is keeping someone from accessing therapy, chatting online can be their only way of receiving treatment. So, when social distancing measures are finally lifted, could digital therapy play a more prominent role in mental health treatment across the board?

“We believe that the evolving situation will facilitate greater adoption of digital health solutions across the whole of the UK,” says de Bathe. “Many services will have the opportunity to experience first-hand the benefits of flexible treatment times and convenient access for patients that digital modalities provide. Our results also demonstrate that the clinical outcomes for our patients are equally as good as face-to-face therapy.”