There is significant potential for digital technologies to improve mental health services, a report by the NHS Confederations' Mental Health Network and its partners* has found. 

According to the report, 'E-mental health' - the use of information and communication technologies (ICT), including social media and smartphone applications, to support and improve mental health - could help address resource challenges and provide better ways of delivering care and support for patients.

Smartphone apps that keep track of mood changes, online platforms offering peer support, and the computerised monitoring of symptoms are means by which more people with mental health conditions could be given the support they need in a way that is convenient to them.

E-mental health has the potential to underpin "cultural transformation" and a move towards a social model of health, by enabling service users greater choice and control and to manage their own conditions more effectively, the report claims.

As such, its authors have called for a national framework for e-mental health to provide the necessary platform for change which, they argue, is particularly pressing given the rising demand on services in a period of financial austerity. 

Growing incidence

The proportion of people in England considered to have a common mental disorder is on the rise, up from 15.5% in 1993 to 17.6% in 2007. And the economic and social costs of mental health are significant; the Centre for Mental Health estimates that these hit £105.2 billion in 2009/10 in England alone.

At the same time, funding for the NHS in England over the current spending review period has remained level, but the service must achieve efficiency savings of £20 billion by 2014 to continue to meet demand. 

"Improving the mental health of the nation, and keeping pace with rising demand, is unlikely to be met through existing models of service delivery," the report warns, and claims that, by making the most of the opportunities on offer through e-mental health, "we can address some of the biggest future resource challenges facing the mental health sector – for example, the costs of service delivery, workforce issues, access to services and continuity of care".

*E-Mental Health - What's all the Fuss About?, was produced jointly by the Mental Health Network, Big White Wall and the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.