Digital technology must be front and centre when tackling the children's mental health crisis
Digital technology has undeniably transformed our lives – from streaming the latest unmissable TV show on our smartphones to taking work zoom calls remotely, we live in a world that offers so many online opportunities.
But children today face challenges that I couldn't have imagined when I was growing up. While social media is innocent fun for most young people, for some it provides a platform for bullying and constant pressure that doesn’t finish at the end of the school day but can be a looming 24/7 negative presence.
Despite the risks, technology is undoubtedly a positive tool for improving young people’s lives. What we need to do is seize the opportunity to utilise technology – where young people often feel most comfortable – to improve their wellbeing and make mental health support more easily accessible. We cannot meaningfully address the UK’s children’s mental health crisis without drawing on such digital solutions.
It is shocking that referrals for children and young people’s mental health services have doubled after the Covid-19 lockdowns. The children’s mental health crisis is real, and we need innovative new solutions to deal with it.
We are now in a position where young people are bravely coming forward with their concerns but are having to wait months for treatment because of our severely overstretched and under-resourced national health service. I have witnessed this desperation firsthand both as an MP and during my time as a clinical psychologist.
This surge in reported mental health issues has created a need for new, innovative solutions to tackle the problem and reach many more young people with the support they need. This means an expansion of support for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), with more funding and specialist centres around the UK.
Yet industry leaders also have a role to play. Groundbreaking new tech platforms are an emerging medium which works for young people who are now growing up with smartphones and this familiarity means that mental health apps could become the first port of call for those wanting to access support.
The initial results from a pilot study in two schools conducted by the digital platform Hidden Strength – which offers online access to professional therapists 24 hours a day, completely free of charge - provide clear evidence of the positive role that technology can play in tackling the mental health crisis. Of those students trialed, 86 per cent experienced a net positive difference in their mental wellbeing from accessing therapists online.
A huge amount of work has been done in recent years to break down the taboo surrounding mental health. We now need to overhaul mental health treatment and the way we provide access to it by modernising and embracing emerging digital technology. Pioneering apps such as the one developed by Hidden Strength have the potential to be game-changing by providing digital solutions to mental health challenges and by being present online where young people interact every day.
To achieve this, policymakers, business leaders, tech innovators and leaders in healthcare and children’s services need to work together. The government needs to demonstrate leadership and embrace technological solutions and ensure that young people’s needs are met appropriately.
We cannot continue to allow our children and young people to suffer without support. Championing new digital technology has to be a part of the solution to the children’s mental health crisis.
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