Digital healthcare crucial to tackle mental health crisis
A new report by digital healthcare company Kooth shows the extend to which the mental health crisis in the UK has deteriorated. Among the stark results, the research found that 64% of young men are experiencing suicidal thoughts, and there is an increasing prevalence of children and young people self-harming.
The report was carried out among 192,000 users of Kooth’s digital platforms for the year 2020 to 2021, and shows that the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have had a deeply negative impact on the mental health of the British population. Key findings include:
- 41% of adult respondents said they felt nervous or anxious every day
- 38% of adults said that they could not stop or control worrying nearly every day
- 39% of respondents said they feel down, depressed, or hopeless nearly every day
- 52% of adults from ethnic minorities are suffering from anxiety
There has also been an alarming rise in suicidal thoughts and self harm:
- 49% of respondents had suicidal or self-harm thoughts for several days or more
- Suicidal thoughts among children aged 10 - 13 are up 54%
- Self harm issues among children and young people are up by 27%
Sleep and eating disorders have increased significantly in the past year, particularly among young people. 1 in 12 young adults said they had eating difficulties, up 51% from 2019. A lack of structure and routine due to lockdowns, triggering home environments, isolation and ‘Zoom dysmorphia’ (increased use of video conferencing technology resulting in body image issues), have all contributed to this rise.
The need for digital mental health services
Disruption to healthcare services due to COVID-19 is another contributing factor to what many are labelling the next pandemic. Kooth's report says the rise in children and young people admitted to emergency departments needing immediate treatment may be attributed to the reduced number of face-to-face appointments available.
The report concludes that early intervention and prevention are crucial to resolving mental health issues, and digital services can effectively work with people to create harm reduction strategies and develop safety plans.
“We knew the distressing impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s mental health. We are now getting a picture of how the UK’s mental health landscape could evolve when we get to a post-vaccine world" said Tim Barker, CEO of Kooth.
"Lead indicators suggest critical areas like self-harm, anxiety and eating difficulties are becoming more of a problem for those who experience mental health issues. Ethnic minorities, students, children and young people are a particular concern.
“Two solutions are clear if we are to protect the nation’s mental health from the fallout from COVID-19. First, we need to broaden access to mental healthcare, and this must include 24/7 digital access. Second, we need early intervention to arrest some of the alarming emerging trends in areas like self-harm, motivation and eating.”
The report also features examples of individuals who have been helped by Kooth's digital services, such as 14-year-old Lara, who was experiencing sleep issues, low self-esteem and poor body image, worsened by using her phone for ten hours a day.
Kooth offered Lara an immediate, online service, which reduced her suicidal thoughts and improved her emotional wellbeing. “I went outside!!" she said in her feedback of the service. "I went on a walk with my mum and gran... I’m actually really proud of myself."
Download the full report from Kooth's website
Long haul Covid, the brain and digital therapies
It is estimated that around 10% of people who get Covid-19 develop long haul Covid, a debilitating condition that can last many months and cause breathlessness, exhaustion and pain.
Research is underway to find out who is more likely to get it and how to treat it. Here neuroplasticity expert and owner of Harley Street Solutions in London Ashok Gupta tells us how the condition affects the brain.
What is long Covid exactly?
Long Covid is when patients who have experienced Covid-19 go on to have continuing symptoms for weeks and months afterwards. These symptoms can include breathlessness, exhaustion, brain fog, gastric issues, pain, and post-exertional malaise. It is estimated that around 10% of Covid-19 infections may result in developing long haul symptoms, and in the USA, this may be affecting over 3 million people.
How does it affect the brain?
Here at our clinic, we hypothesise that it is due to a malfunction in the unconscious brain, creating a conditioned response that keeps the body in a hyper-aroused state of defensiveness. At the core of this hypothesis is the idea that we are here because our nervous system and immune system have evolved to survive. We are survival machines!
When we encounter something such as Covid-19, the brain perceives it as life threatening, and rightly so. And in the era of the pandemic, with more stress, anxiety and social isolation, our immunity may be compromised, and therefore it may take longer for the immune system to fight off the virus and recover.
If the brain makes the decision that this is potentially life threatening and we get to the stage where we’re overcoming the virus, a legacy is left in the brain; it keeps over-responding to anything that reminds us of the virus. Even if we’ve fought off the virus, the brain will react in a precautionary way to stimuli reminiscent of the virus.
The brain may get stuck in that overprotective response, and keeps stimulating our nervous system and our immune system, just in case the virus may still be present.
What symptoms does this cause?
These signals cause a cascade of symptoms including breathlessness, extreme fatigue, brain fog, loss of taste or smell, headaches, and many others. And these are caused by our own immunes system.
In the case of long-haul Covid, symptoms in the body get detected by a hypersensitive brain which thinks we’re still in danger. The brain then chronically stimulates the immune and nervous systems, and then we have a continuation of a chronic set of symptoms.
This isn’t unique to long-haul Covid. Many patients develop chronic fatigue syndrome, sometimes known as “ME”, for example, after the flu, a stomach bug, or respiratory illness. Covid-19 may be a severe trigger of a form of chronic fatigue syndrome or ME.
How does long-haul Covid affect mental health?
Anxiety is a very common symptom in long haulers. It can be frightening to wonder about what may be happening in your body, and what the prognosis is going to be for one’s long term health. Reaching out for support for mental health is crucial for long-haulers.
How does neuroplasticity treatment work for long-haul COVID patients?
We have been working with patients for two decades with a brain retraining programme using neuroplasticity or “limbic retraining.”
We believe that through neural rewiring, the brain can be “persuaded” that we are no longer in danger and to come back to homeostasis. But to be very clear, we are not saying it is psychological in any way, but we believe there are novel ways of accessing the unconscious brain.
We recently worked successfully with a 56-year-old male with long-haul Covid, who prior to contracting Covid-19 in March of 2020 was running half-marathons and cycling, but afterwards he struggled to get off the sofa for months. Within 3 months he’s now back to 100% and running half marathons again.
At our clinic, we train the patient to be able to recognise those subtle unconscious danger signals on the periphery of consciousness. This, coupled with supportive techniques and the natural hallmarks of good health such as sleep and diet help prepare the patient to respond to perceived threats that might trigger the response.
The natural state of our brain is to default to protection. The brain prioritises survival and passing on our genes to the next generation, over any other impulse. It cares more about that than you feeling healthy and well. Protective responses are evolutionary, and are the right thing for the brain to do – it’s survival.
What digital therapies or apps are proving effective at treating long-haul Covid?
It seems that long haul patients are availing themselves of many online therapies and services, including meditation apps and wellness websites. We have an online neuroplasticity “brain retraining” video course called the “Gupta Program” which hosts 15 interactive videos and many audio exercises. This is proving very popular with long haul patients, and we are currently conducting a trial to test the effectiveness of this therapy.
What is the danger of leaving long-haul Covid untreated?
The longer it goes untreated, we hypothesise that it may become more entrenched in the brain, and become chronic in the longer term. Therefore we advise all patients to get help and advice as soon as possible.