The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Nicola Harvey

Digital mental health platforms for young people: an innovative way forward?

The pandemic is just one factor driving the increased use of online mental health platforms. Nicola Harvey weighs up the opportunities and challenges this innovation presents.

At a time when everyone is adjusting to the tier system and vaccines are on the way, children and young people are experiencing unprecedented change to life as we know it. Learning to cope with social isolation, unexpected bereavement, being placed into school bubbles, exam uncertainties, adapting to e-learning and so forth – all continue to impact their emotional health and mental wellbeing.

In an increasingly digitised world, online mental health platforms play an important role in engaging young people who may not be receiving the support they need

According to charity Young Minds, 80% of the children and young people surveyed state the pandemic has made their mental health worse.

While initiatives like the DfE and NHS’s Mental Health Support Teams and organisations like Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families continue to provide evidence-based resources and support, not every student or teacher is receiving the help that they need. 40% of respondents to the Young Minds research said there were no school counsellors available to support them in school, and only 27% had had a one-to-one conversation with a teacher or another member of staff to support their wellbeing.

Connection and engagement in a digital world

65% of young people surveyed by Safer Internet stated they would feel disconnected from the world if they couldn’t be online.

In an increasingly digitised world, online mental health platforms play an important role in engaging young people who may not be receiving the support they need for their mental and emotional wellbeing within their education setting.

Known as the digital generation, many young people today view the world around them through smartphones and digital devices. They are turning to social media and online platforms like e-wellbeing, Young Minds and ChildLine for quick and easily accessible content to support their mental health.

These online platforms, particularly bespoke apps, focus on issues impacting young people and encourage them to identify their own needs and ways to look after their emotional health and mental wellbeing from an early stage in an informative, practical and youth-friendly way.

A blended approach

Online platforms can be helpful, but talking to someone in person is often the best way for a young person to reflect on what they’re going through, express themselves and work through their difficulties with a trusted adult or peer.

Many counselling providers and youth services had to pause face to face sessions due to the pandemic and quickly build capacity for secure online therapy. A lot have taken a blended approach, using talking therapies and online counselling alongside encrypted therapy platforms like Minddistrict or Kooth.

Benefits and challenges

Benefits of using digital mental health platforms Challenges of using digital mental health platforms
Empowers young people to identify and learn about their own mental health needs at their own pace, at any time of the day, not just during working or school hours. Access to digital devices and internet connection may not always be possible for all young people and depending on support available, may widen the social gap and disparity between young people receiving the vital support they need.
Flexibility and convenience – support can be accessed from their own home or another location of their choosing, as long as the young person has a digital device. This also takes away the travel time and anticipation of sitting in a waiting room. Body language, clear boundaries and social cues are not always picked up on when communicating digitally, particularly during a face to face online counselling session. Due to the lack of in-person human connection, the counsellor may need to ‘think outside the box’ to build rapport with the client over time.
Enables young people to be anonymous (depending on the platform), which may suit them if they are struggling to talk to someone face to face or are embarrassed about sharing an issue. Anonymity increases the likelihood of them opening up. Depending on the digital platform, anonymity and having an element of control raises questions around safeguarding, risk and clinical governance if a vulnerable young person discloses something which needs more investigation. To help rectify this, more digital mental health providers are using a secure referral process, tracking tools and building upon safeguarding policies to ensure the young person is monitored and supported throughout.
Reassures the young person that they are in control of the process e.g. being able to browse a mental health website at their own leisure and knowing they can log-off from a face to face online session at any point if they don’t feel comfortable. Privacy issues have been highlighted when young people share content online in person or written form. This has been met with more robust privacy policies and emphasis on using secure encrypted platforms. Young Minds have shared a helpful document highlighting online safety measures.

A strategic direction?

The pandemic has seen a sudden increase in digital mental health support for young people and is likely to continue. In line with their digital innovation strategy for a sustainable future, the NHS has a digital transformation plan which emphasises the importance of using digital technology to ‘enable people to access the care they need quickly and easily, when it suits them.’

While not everyone may be on board with using digital mental platforms, particularly as more work needs to be done to break down social barriers and additional evidence is needed to evaluate young peoples’ outcomes, this sector is likely to continue to grow and thrive.

For more information on digital mental health platforms or general information on student wellbeing in your school, please talk to your designated mental health lead or explore the content on Schools in Mind.

Further reading and resources

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