Following some of the latest Government announcements relating to COVID-19, the majority of children and young people will this week be getting used to not going to school. In this blog, Dr Terry Hanley discusses what this could mean for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.  

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is creating an enormous amount of anxiety. Most of this relates to physical health, but the World Health Organisation recently started raising the issue of mental health and wellbeing. This is wide ranging and considers the impact upon everyone, including the general public and care workers. Importantly, it goes beyond the physical and includes issues such as the stigma that people might encounter if they are viewed as being unwell and the concern that people have about contracting the virus (themselves or others). As a response it directs professionals to the mGAP Humanitarian Intervention Guide, a thorough statement on principled responses to need.

Where it is less clear, however, is in considering how professionals will remotely support individuals in need of support whilst people practice social distancing or self-isolate. Such issues have become increasingly important as workplaces encourage home working and education providers have now closed for a potentially long period of time. With young people and young adults increasingly finding themselves losing access to valuable psychological support services, offering an online alternative could be one means of filling this gap.

Face-to-face services compared to online support

For years, face-to-face support has been the primary means by which therapeutic support has been offered. Online therapy has however been evolving in the background for many years and, although there has been a steady reluctance to engage with mediated support by professionals, the desire to access such support by the general public has increased dramatically. For instance, one online counselling service for young people in the UK receives over 2,000 log-ins each day. Such a pattern is echoed by numerous mental health and wellbeing services.

Research has proven very positive for online provision. Effectiveness studies have shown similar results to face-to-face work and individuals accessing services report the relationship to be of a similar quality.

For some, there are even novel benefits, with individuals preferring to access services online and being more willing to talk about the issues they face online than face-to-face with a therapist. Organisations are even beginning to question where therapeutic relationships begin and end. For instance, whereas many people might view online therapy as taking what is offered face-to-face and offering it online, technologically savvy organisations are aiming to enrich the therapeutic work directly with professionals by providing other resources as well. They are creating what might be viewed as ‘positive virtual environments’ in which individuals can access multiple resources such as information sheets, forums to access peer support, email therapy, chat room therapy and access to computerised therapy programmes.

Considerations in providing online services

However, those offering therapeutic interventions need to be both confident at using such resources and competent in using them properly. For instance, therapists need to be mindful of the differences in the way therapy unfolds online. People might open up about serious issues much quicker than they do in face-to-face relationships or they might access support in a public place where people can hear or see what is being talked about (most young people don’t want their family knowing personal concerns).

Also, people might end a meeting very quickly and the person supporting them becomes concerned about their wellbeing; having appropriate risk management processes therefore becomes essential. And there are clear GDPR issues encountered if people start using personal computers to engage with their professional worlds. Professionals therefore need to be aware of these differences and support the people they work with to be aware of them too.

How can we support young people during school closures?

Firstly, we need to keep thinking about the mental health and wellbeing of young people and young adults during this difficult time. It is important for service providers to be pro-active in looking after younger generations’ wellbeing, particularly those who might be isolated from others.

Secondly, offering online therapeutic resources might be one way to offer continuity of support (eg Kooth.com). Services can provide online therapy offered by professionals, supportive information that is responsive to current needs, and encourage moderated forum interactions with peers.

Thirdly, financial support will be needed to support the pressure on existing online services and fund organisations in making a transition to mediated support. For instance, professionals will need additional training and supervision to offer these services and appropriate technology will need to be purchased to offer it.

The government has talked a lot about transforming mental health and wellbeing services in recent years. Much of this discussion has been about extending the remit of schools and has not referred to the way that technology might be used to support ‘digital natives’ (individuals who have grown up in a world that has always had the internet). Maybe the current circumstances, and the need to provide support services online, will be the catalyst that makes them take this leap.

 

Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.

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