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Online therapy got me through lockdown - and it can work for you too

Recent research shows virtual counselling is highly effective. Is it the solution to our over-burdened mental health services?

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Niamh Kane continued therapy with her psychiatrist and counsellor online during lockdown. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Niamh Kane continued therapy with her psychiatrist and counsellor online during lockdown. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Niamh Kane continued therapy with her psychiatrist and counsellor online during lockdown. Photo: Gerry Mooney

As we phase out of lockdown, mental health providers are anticipating a large increase in numerous disorders such as depression and anxiety linked to Covid-19, as the impact and its repercussions slowly begin to take their toll. Even when the pandemic is brought under control, grief, anxiety and depression, loneliness and isolation will continue to affect people and communities.

So with our mental health system already under pressure, how will our services deal with this looming crisis?

Well, the answer may lie with technology to fill the gap where waiting lists have failed.

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Dr Derek Richards

Dr Derek Richards

Dr Derek Richards

During the Covid-19 pandemic, technologies played a crucial role in keeping our society functional and connected when we needed it most. And these technologies may have a long-lasting impact beyond Covid-19. If the pandemic has demonstrated anything, it's the importance of digital readiness.

Newly-published research has found that digital mental health interventions can have a significant long-term impact on anxiety and depression recovery.

The study, published in the Nature partner journal Digital Medicine, involved more than 360 NHS service users in the UK. It was undertaken by SilverCloud Health, the world's leading digital mental health company, with the School of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin and health economics analysis from the University of Sheffield. As part of the study, a treatment group was given eight weeks of supported digital mental health intervention to treat depression and anxiety, compared with a waiting-list control group that did not receive the treatment initially.

The research emphasises how digital cognitive behavioural therapy (iCBT) as part of wider psychological care can deliver strong clinical improvements and recovery. In addition to patient self-reported outcomes, it included a formal diagnosis of depression and anxiety and results show that more than half of those with a diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression recovered after three months.

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Recent research shows virtual counselling is highly effective. Is it the solution to our over-burdened mental health services? Stock image

Recent research shows virtual counselling is highly effective. Is it the solution to our over-burdened mental health services? Stock image

Recent research shows virtual counselling is highly effective. Is it the solution to our over-burdened mental health services? Stock image

Psychiatric interviews of participants at three months after treatment found that, overall, 56.4pc no longer had a diagnosis of anxiety, depression or a joint diagnosis. A further significant decrease in symptom scores was seen after 12 months.

So could online therapy be the way forward when it comes to minding your mental health in place of the traditional face-to-face?

Dr Derek Richards, Chief Science Officer at SilverCloud Health and Co-Director of the E-Mental Health Research Group at TCD believes that the research demonstrates how digitally-provided cognitive behavioural therapy can enhance a wider mental health therapy programme calibrated to an individual's needs.

"Due to its results on long-term improvement, recovery and cost-effectiveness, at a time of increasing demand for psychological and behavioural healthcare, digital mental health care should be viewed as a standard part of psychological support and no longer simply as an innovative approach.

"As a result of the global pandemic, many individuals within communities are facing mental health challenges and iCBT can play an important part complementing current mental healthcare services, increasing their reach and capacity, and helping support and treat more people," said Dr Richards.

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Dr Derek Richards

Dr Derek Richards

Dr Derek Richards

People who live with mental health issues all know this - it never goes away and being under lockdown during the pandemic has been a struggle, to say the least.

However, one good thing to come out of this forced isolation and social distancing is that general health and mental health practices have had to rethink how to engage with their patients.

I may have a fairly recent bipolar diagnosis - just over a year - but I am by no means new to therapy. I have previously attended St Patrick's mental health services in Dublin for cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) - a great starting point to begin healing. (St Patrick's mental health services offer fee reductions upon application for the CBT sessions - so instead of paying €150, I paid €50.) It helped me to become aware of all the negative things I was saying to myself and started to change the script for the better.

I find that the more I practice CBT, the better my relationship with my mind and my body becomes.

I don't have the weight of holding all of my issues to myself. Sharing in a safe space with a professional, and taking my medication, is the smart choice for me personally.

But when the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions came into force, I was worried about my sessions with my psychiatrist and counsellor being discontinued, as they are both vital for me to maintain my mental health.

Thankfully they adjusted to the circumstances quite quickly and offered online appointments, so my mental health supports and services continued during the pandemic.

I have a sliding-scale counsellor who adjusts payments determined by your circumstances.

I pay €10 per week at Village Counselling Service (villagecounselling.ie) - they offered online therapy during Covid-19 and are opting to continue their therapy sessions online, via telephone or Skype for those wishing to keep availing of it.

An while you may balk at the very idea of booking some screen time or talking down the phone with a stranger and sharing your deepest thoughts and fears, in my own experience I found it a lifeline during these difficult and uncertain times.

As someone who experiences chronic pain, speaking on the telephone or using an online platform is a useful alternative - especially on those days that it is impossible for me to leave the house.

It's been a tough year for everyone and I'm right there with you if you've struggled to get out of bed some mornings, put off getting dressed or pulled the blinds back down to forget the world for a day. The pandemic is still relatively new and challenging to us all. Try and concentrate on the fact you're not alone.

You could join The Mighty (themighty.com) - an online social platform that connects people with mental health illness and chronic conditions.

You'd be surprised how many times someone anonymous can bring a smile to your face.


How to get online help

⬤ If you want to test out CBT from the comfort of your own home for free, Aware (aware.ie) have expanded their offering of free online mental health education programmes, in response to the outbreak, that you can do from home. You can either take the Lifeskills online class by yourself or join the virtual class setting, whichever suits your comfort level.

⬤ There are a number of service providers that offer online and phone mental health supports and services. These include online counselling, phone and text services as well as online support which can be found on yourmentalhealth.ie and mentalhealthireland.ie

⬤ Mental health support and advice to young people aged 12-25 and parents or concerned adults can use freephone 1800 544729 from 1pm to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Text CALL ME to 086 180 3880 with your preferred day and time for a call visit jigsaw.ie

⬤ The HSE also runs a free 24/7 text service, providing everything from a calming chat to immediate support for people going through a mental health or emotional crisis. Text HELLO to 50808, anytime day or night. For more information check out text50808.ie

⬤ mymind.org offer free online counselling sessions

Preparing for online help

1. Make sure your telephone or computer has enough charge to cover the time of the session.

2. Check your internet connection is working.

3. Make sure you are in a comfortable space which is private and you cannot be overheard.

4. You might find it useful to use headphones for your session as they may improve the sound quality.

5. Be prepared to receive your call or meeting invitation as Zoom meeting requests are sent to a designated email address five minutes before the session is due to begin.

Health & Living