How digital technology can help bridge the gap in mental health care access

Photo: creative commons. Digital mental health services can act as a stop-gap for those who cannot access in-person mental health services, says Stephanie Cassin, director of clinical training at Ryerson’s psychology department.

Jessie Fawcett, a first-year social work student, has used the app Calm Harm – a free app that helps those who struggle with self-harm. 

It gives many strategies for coping with the triggers and [urges] and provides many beneficial distractions. There are a diverse set of varieties to choose from for the way that you’d like to be distracted,” she said via email.

Apps like these can act as a stop-gap for those who cannot access in-person mental health services, says Stephanie Cassin, associate professor and director of clinical training at Ryerson’s psychology department.

“We know there are long wait times for some of the best in-person services. There’s just a supplyanddemand issue. During that period where people are waiting for services, there can be some benefits [in using] apps,” she said at the Ryerson Student Wellbeing conference.  

According to Andrea Levinson, psychiatrist-in-chief at the University of Toronto, students in Toronto face “serious wait times” for in-person counselling. However, she does not see technology replacing the patient-therapist relationship.

Instead, she says technology can “provide additional access.” For example, “telepsychiatry [where] psychiatrists use a portal and provide consultation and dynamic care to remote communities.”

Cassin says digital mental health services can also help those with minor health issues and those who are hesitant to try face-to-face counselling.

However, she says patient retention tends to be higher with face-to-face contact, compared with only using digital tools.

“What we find with studies that look at just using apps or just using websites to deliver treatments is that session by session people tend to drop out because there is not a real draw to pull them back into the treatment,” she said.

Allan Macdonald, director of student health and wellness at Ryerson’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC) says the use of technology is not new in mental health services.

“Using technology to improve access to healthcare services has been in place for some time now, for example, Telehealth Ontario.”

As for digital services on campus, he says the CSDC recently entered into a three-year agreement with Welltrack. The online therapy tool offers modules for the treatment of depression and anxiety symptoms and is available to all Ryerson students.

In September 2017, the RSU board also approved the motion for myWellness to be included in students’ health and dental plan. The platform is a digital counselling service for students struggling with mental illness.  

“It’s no secret that students spend a lot of time on their phones and apps, so we see the benefit of offering mental health support on platforms they are already on. Student feedback reflects that,” Macdonald said.

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