More 'human' mental health support needed to bridge 'digital divide'

People with severe mental illnesses say they are struggling to access real-life help due to a digital divide.

Calls have been made for ‘more human interaction’ to ensure people can reach potentially life-saving support.

Adults with psychosis-spectrum disorders are more likely to lack digital skills, according to new research, meaning they struggle to access key services which are increasingly housed online.

Some 42.2% of participants in the study, conducted by York University, did not have a basic ‘foundation’ level of computer literacy.

This included being unable to set up an email account and use an online search engine.

Michael Robinson, 47, suffers from schizoaffective disorder and is unable to use a computer to access support.

He said people’s lives will be put at risk if more alternatives are not found.

Michael told Metro.co.uk: ‘Accessing mental health services is difficult at the best of times, but people now can’t access the right treatment.

‘GP receptionists have also given me a hard time before for ringing up to get my prescription, as they tell me the number I ring on is for people aged over 75 and I need to order mine online.’

The author has said both the NHS and the government need to have more people available over the phone, for both accessibility and human interaction.

He said: ‘Ultimately it is down to resources, and it is cheaper to refer someone through a website than someone answering a phone call.

‘It may save money, but it doesn’t help us if we are in a mental health crisis and need help.

‘We need that human interaction and we can’t work with digital robots.’

Michael argued it is also ‘pointless’ teaching people with a psychosis-spectrum disorder how to use technology, as help needs to be urgent.

‘If you suffer with psychosis, chances are you will never be able to read the website,’ he explained.

‘There is also little point offering to teach people these tech skills when a lot people need help urgently.

‘A website is not going to benefit anyone in a total crisis, help needs to be more direct and immediate.’

It is not just limited access to health support which Michael struggles with, as he is also unable to easily claim his benefits and receive his veteran discounts.

He has to rely on a social worker to do this for him.

Now, charities are calling for the NHS to ensure there are other ways to access support, outside of the digital world.

Lucy Schonegevel, associate director for policy and practice at Rethink Mental Illness, told Metro.co.uk: ‘Moving more services online has the potential to make people’s lives more convenient and improve efficiency in stretched organisations like the NHS, but we must be careful that no-one is locked out of vital help and support in the process.

‘The NHS, the benefits system and other public services must be inclusive, working with people experiencing mental illness and other groups to ensure they can access support in a way that works for them.’

A spokesperson for the NHS said: ‘Digital technology can provide valuable additional options for accessing mental health services, but every patient is different and we would always expect those who are unwell to be able to speak to someone on the phone or face to face.

‘The NHS has grown the mental health workforce by more than 20,000 so that we can provide care for more people than ever before, including through new services such as 24/7 crisis lines which are answering more than 200,000 telephone calls a month.’

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: ‘Our welfare system helps millions of people every year and it is vital that it can be accessed by all who need it.

‘We fund support for Universal Credit applications through the Help to Claim service, provided by Citizens Advice, and people can also phone our free Universal Credit helpline for support with their claim.

‘Our dedicated Work Coaches also help to ensure all customers have a direct line of contact and can access tailored one-to-one support in person at the jobcentre.’

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