Covid-19 as a window of opportunity for e-mental health

Covid-19 poses a severe threat to society and this threat is not only targeted at the health of people all around the globe. Financial markets are collapsing and more and more people are getting isolated because of imposed ‘lock downs’.

This virus also has an effect on the mental well being of people. Levels of anxiety will increase, both through direct causes including fears of contamination, stress, grief, and depression triggered by exposure to the virus, and through influences from the consequences of the social and economic mayhem that is occurring on individual and societal levels.

At the same time mental care providers in afflicted countries are currently closing their doors for patients who need ambulatory face-to-face therapy in fear of spreading Covid-19 further. Of course e-mental health could be of great help here, for example via videoconferencing and internet interventions. But Tim Wind (ARQ), Heleen Riper (VU university Amsterdam) and others state in a recently published paper that ‘despite two decades of evidence-based e-mental health services, numerous barriers have stalled the overall implementation in routine care thus far.’ Furthermore they say that it takes no less on average than 16 years for a health care innovation to be implemented!

Policy innovation theory argues that a unique “window of opportunity” opens when three streams are coupled: problems, policies and politics. When a policy window is recognized and open, there is a potential for policy making to happen. Policy entrepreneurs function at this time as the action takers who take advantage of these windows while they are open. It looks like Covid-19 opened a window of opportunity for the usage of e-mental health.

We are witnessing a phenomenon whereby the outbreak of COVID-19 is hastening managers, ICT-staff, and clinicians to overcome barriers overnight, from a pragmatic standpoint seldom seen before. Riper and Wind c.s. state: ‘The virus seems a greater catalyst for the implementation of online therapy and e-health tools in routine practice than two decades of many brilliant, but failed, attempts in this domain.’

The authors continue to stress that e-mental health applications hold value far beyond the provision of videoconferencing psychotherapy in the current situation of crisis: ‘Countries hit by the Corona virus may also consider adopting a wider public e-mental health approach, which would focus additionally on prevention and on reaching people at risk for mental health disorders.’

The article concludes therefore: ‘It is likely that the response to this emergency will be more than a temporary increase in online work. Once mental health care institutions have developed the capabilities of serving their patients via videoconferencing and other digital technologies, there is little reason for them to give these up, in view of the many advantages.’ The authors urge practitioners to promptly start adopting e-mental health care applications, both as methods to continue their care to current patients in need and as interventions to cope with the imminent upsurge in mental health symptoms due to the coronavirus.

Make no mistake, the coronavirus is a contagious, deathly virus, which brings a lot of distress, uncertainty and a threat to public health. But, it does on the other side seems to be a breakthrough for the widespread use of e-mental health. And that is good news. Within the eMEN-project we have always stated that there is a growing demand for e-mental health due to societal challenges as climate change, automation, social media, terrorism and employability.

On the other side there is no more money for the increasing demand. E-mental health could therefore be the tool to meet the increasing demands without giving in on the quality of health. That managers, ICT-staff and clinicians, now the crisis has hit, are breaking barriers to work with e-mental proves this is true. The eMEN platform hopes wholeheartedly that mental health institutions will still make use of proven tools after the coronavirus has been over won.

In the coming two years the eMEN platform will capitalize on what has been done in the past 3 years. This means that we will continue to promote more affordable, accessible, effective and empowering mental health through product innovation, development, testing, implementation and knowledge exchange. Please join us to make this effort done! For more information click here.

Download here the article of Tim Wind and Heleen Riper c.s., 'The COVID-19 pandemic: The ‘black swan’ for mental health care and a turning point for e-health', in Internet Interventions, march 2020.

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