How technology fits into the mental health conversation

Social media companies must do more to protect users' mental health.

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Historically, mental illness has often been overlooked – either brushed under the carpet or misunderstood. But thanks to a positive shift in the way we’re viewing mental health, public awareness is higher than ever. The situation is not all rosy and issues such as teen and male suicides, self-harm and loneliness are rightly causes for concern.

It’s an irony not lost on me, as the minister with mental health, inequalities and suicide prevention in my brief, that the rise in popularity of social media platforms, whilst connecting and strengthening individuals and communities, can also undermine and isolate the already vulnerable and marginalised. Social media companies have acknowledged they must do more to protect the mental health of their users. I’ve already met with Facebook and made it clear to them – and to other social media companies – that the onus is on them to enhance protection, remove harmful content, and improve signposting to support those at risk. If they fail to do so, we will legislate further, but we are clear that collective efforts and decision-making are the best possible approach.

That’s why I was delighted when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, recently announced a new government-backed project in the spirit of the latter. Google, Facebook and Snapchat will work alongside Samaritans suicide prevention experts on a panel to find better ways to limit – and ideally block – harmful online content. Their work will be informed by online users with direct experience of mental health issues, including suicide and self-harm.

Meanwhile, my ministerial colleague at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Margot James, has promised this government will crack down on any social media platforms falling short in their response to online bullying, abuse and misinformation. DCMS’s Online Harms whitepaper will set out explicit obligations for companies to help keep their users, particularly children, safe online.

But our ambition for good mental health for all cannot simply be achieved through government action alone. We all have a part to play in looking out for one another and fostering a collective community spirit which ensures each and every one of us feel supported – whether that is by encouraging the promotion of crisis cafes, which act as a sanctuary for those in vital need of someone to talk to, or encouraging the conversation around mental health to begin at an early age.

When it comes to what the government is doing in this space however, we’re not complacent. The Long Term Plan for the NHS, published earlier this year, was a defining moment. The £33.9bn a year in extra funding the government has pledged for the NHS is helping to spur the largest expansion of mental health services in a generation, bringing us ever closer to our goal of achieving parity of esteem between mental and physical health.

This includes £2.3bn of additional investment in real terms to support almost 350,000 more children and young people, and at least an extra 380,000 adults receiving clinically approved talking therapies over the next five years.

It will mean England will see round-the-clock mental health crisis care rolled out through NHS 111 by 2023/24, with children, young people and adults being able to access vital support through
the helpline 24/7, seven days a week – taking the pressure off A&E departments, paediatric hospital wards and ambulance services.

There will be fresh support for young adults too, with tailored services extending beyond 18 to 25 – helping thousands more tackle any issues with their mental health that can appear during the transition to adulthood.

We know that prevention, early detection and treatment of mental ill health – especially in children and young people – are vital to recovery and sustaining psychological good health. That’s why we are the first country in the world to introduce waiting time standards for talking therapies and early intervention in psychosis.

Intervention is not limited to clinicians and care professionals. This government is supporting training and support for teachers, community leaders and employers to help them be even more alert to mental health problems in their patients, students and colleagues.

Meanwhile, on the employee side, last year, in tandem with the Department for Work and Pensions, we announced that employees with mental and physical health issues will receive further support to manage their conditions at work, thanks to 19 innovative projects that will receive millions in government funding.

Almost £4m from the Work and Health Challenge Fund will be shared between successful projects. Projects include a mobile phone app to help people understand the signs of their own mental ill health, flagging access to trained councillors and further support.

Technological innovation is, therefore, playing an increasing role in managing our mental state. Until recently, personal data had been too vast to analyse, concerns around privacy and confidentiality too hard to allay. That said, algorithms and other analytical methods can help alert services to vulnerable people at risk and in ways which do not compromise their privacy, dignity and autonomy. Online, offline, at home, school or in the workplace, good mental health must be part of everyone’s everyday conversations.

We can deliver the best mental health support in the world, but if we remain too shy, stigmatised or embarrassed to discuss what’s going on in our heads then we risk compromising these hard-won advances in care and support.

I am determined to make the best possible care available for everyone who needs it. I am not complacent that there is still some way to go, but I am grateful that this goal is increasingly shared by everyone in society.

Jackie Doyle-Price MP is the parliamentary under-secretary for the Department of Health and Social Care.