Radical plan to introduce mental health 'web therapy'
Minister proposes 24/7 phone and text line for people seeking access to counselling services
Speaking a to a psychiatrist on Skype or FaceTime after you have dialled 777 on your smartphone for emergency mental health services could become the new norm under a radical new Government initiative.
So-called 'web therapy' will replace the psychiatrist's chair while a dedicated phone and text line will ensure well-regulated mental health services are available 24/7.
The move toward online counselling is aimed at addressing the worrying shortfall in psychiatric consultants. There are 65 vacant psychiatrist posts across the HSE and those working in the system are becoming increasingly stretched.
Minister of State for Mental Health Jim Daly admits moving toward tele-psychiatry will prove controversial as people naturally prefer a face-to-face appointment with a consultant.
"Often we focus only on the threats posed by the internet. However, we must also note that changes in how we communicate offers us a unique once-off opportunity for radical reform in how we deliver mental health services," Mr Daly told the Sunday Independent.
"The time where mental health was the permanent Cinderella of health policymaking is over. We have a responsibility to be radical or redundant.
"It is time to text, to talk, to tweet and possibly even Skype about how we can all mind ourselves and our friends and loved ones better."
Web therapy has become increasingly prevalent in the US where the shortage of consultant psychiatrists is being acutely felt. Mr Daly recently attended a conference in America where he saw first-hand how online psychiatric help can offer assistance to people with mental health difficulties.
Last week, Channel 4 aired the first episode of a new comedy show, Hang Ups, starring Richard E Grant in which the actor plays a web therapist offering counselling services. The programme is based on a US show of the same name.
Mr Daly believes introducing a similar service in Ireland will give more people access to mental health services and ease the burden on existing resources.
"Tele-psychiatry can provide individual psychiatric evaluations, family therapy, education and patient management," he said.
"In other parts of the world, patients are assessed and admitted to inpatient units from emergency departments after receiving remote psychiatric diagnosis from a consultant with the assistance of the on-site team.
"Tele-services involve a direct interaction between a therapist and patient and assists patients by providing convenient, affordable and readily accessible mental health services in the sitting room, the kitchen or the bed-room."
A soon-to-be rolled out pilot programme will measure the benefits of web therapy for people living in remote parts of the country.
It will also assess whether the programme would address the stigmas around mental health and the reluctance of some people to attend a psychiatrist or present at a hospital when they are feeling down. The project also aims to make the most of increasingly limited existing mental health resources.
"It will reduce travel time for consultants so they can see more patients across a wider geographical area and most crucially it will deliver help and early intervention while reducing the risk of entering high-level intervention services," Mr Daly said.
"Research indicates a high level of patient satisfaction, especially among adolescents and those with autism and severe anxiety disorders."
The new emergency phone number for mental health services will not only provide easy access to professional advice, it will also act as a way of regulating the more than 1,000 counselling services offering help to people suffering with mental health illnesses. Mr Daly said the dedicated number would act as a "front door" to regulated services.
When a person calls 777 - the number being proposed by the minister - they will be put through to an operator who will find the best service for their needs based on their condition and location.
If a charity or mental health organisation wants to be included in the list of regulated services, it will have to meet certain criteria before it can be accepted.
"I want it to be a 999 for mental health. If you need help for yourself or a friend you call this number, and this number only," Mr Daly added.
"Call centre staff will be trained in active listening so that, if an individual calls the telephone line in crisis, they will be transferred to a suitable service immediately, taking account of their needs and the services available in their area."