How can we address the unmet needs within our mental health systems? 

How can we address the unmet needs within our mental health systems? 

Dr Nicky Main, the UK and Europe Adult Clinical Lead for a leading provider of AI-powered mental health support, Wysa, explores strategies to address the unmet demand for mental health services. As a British Psychological Society member, Dr Main believes digital solutions hold untapped potential and can overcome fragmented systems. 

It’s clear that the UK is in the midst of a mental health crisis. According to official figures, one in six adults in the UK have a mental health condition, although our research of UK employees found that one in three have clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. 

NHS Digital’s Mental Health Bulletin estimates that 3.25 million people were in contact with NHS-funded secondary mental health, learning disability or autism services at some point during 2021/22. This is around 5.8% of the population, with significant variation in age groups varying from 14.8% of 11-15 year olds and 13.9% of 16-19 year olds to 2.7% of 65-69 year olds. It’s worth noting that these figures do not include people who were only in contact with NHS Talking Therapies services.  

The number of people accessing talking therapy through the NHS for conditions such as anxiety and depression has increased by 21.5%, according to the latest data. In 2021/22, 1.81 million referrals were made to the NHS Talking Therapies programme, compared to 1.41 million in the previous 12 months. There is simply not sufficient capacity within the system to cope with this level of demand.  

We’re also seeing a growth in the presentation of mental health concerns within general practice – up to 40% of GP appointments are taken up by mental health issues. GPs have a broad education in mental health, but many are not equipped or do not have the time to give tailored and expert advice and the result is that people are often left without professional support. Ambulance crews in England are spending 1.8m hours a year – the equivalent of 75,000 days – attending to patients with mental health problems.  

Where support is provided, systems are often siloed and the different services and support options can be confusing and exhausting to navigate. The creation of pathways that integrate and talk to each other is time-consuming and difficult to achieve, but essential so that people don’t fall between gaps or have to tell their story multiple times.   

We also need to improve equality of access to services – we know that certain demographics struggle to access treatment, perhaps because of stigma within certain communities, because of digital poverty or because they live in rural locations which makes accessing appointments more difficult.  

NHS Talking Therapies services also receive large numbers of people with very complex presentations. But often not quite complex enough to reach the referral criteria for secondary care, which risks people sitting between services and not getting the help that they need. For those who are accepted, the level of demand for Talking Therapies services means that people are often waiting several weeks or months before receiving therapy. It shouldn’t be that people can only be seen quickly when their mental health problems reach a crisis point – better to provide ways for them to look after their mental health when symptoms first appear. 

Could digital be the answer? 

Completing an NHS Talking Therapy referral using Wysa’s digital assistant saves both administrative and clinical time compared with traditional referral methods. Digital solutions can also ensure that people get immediate information on how to access local support services for risk, as well as other issues that may be maintaining their difficulties such as debt, housing and drug use.   

Digital solutions can be available 24/7, anywhere, any time, and can help provide people with instant and convenient access to evidence-based tools and change techniques that they can use by themselves to manage their own mental health and enhance their own recovery. They will never replace the need for skilled and qualified therapists, but they can free up clinician time, as well as enable people to feel more in control of their own health and well-being.  

We believe access to support should be available whenever people need it. Stigma prevails, so we take away the need for people to ask for help and eliminate the need for people to make a judgment call on when they should seek professional support. Proven to improve depression and anxiety scores by an average of 31%, Wysa’s AI-first approach enables employees to improve their mental health before symptoms become severe, by understanding an individual’s needs and guiding them through interactive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises. Wysa’s clinically safe AI encourages users to take additional support, whenever it’s needed, by guiding them towards Wysa’s human coaching, employer benefits programmes (EAP) or national crisis lines. Wysa has helped over 6 million people through 550 million AI conversations across 95 countries. 

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