Online mental health services boomed throughout the COVID crisis, and that’s not such a bad thing.
Psychiatrist Mike Millard says that while the past 18 months have been very difficult, one of the few positives is that people now take maintaining their psychological wellbeing more seriously.
Dr Millard is Clinical Director at This Way Up, an online mental health service run in partnership with St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of NSW since 2011.
Pre-COVID, problems such as anxiety, distress, depression and insomnia already accounted for 10% of global disabilities. In fact up to 50% of people will experience clinically significant anxiety and/or depression in their lifetime.
During the pandemic This Way Up’s user numbers soared, with last year’s NSW lockdown producing a 1000% increase in course registrations, and post-lockdown a 500% increase year on year.
This Way Up offers a series of 18 different online programs, all developed using a type of psychological treatment called cognitive behavioural therapy.
“Cognitive behavioural therapy teaches you about the way you think, about the way you feel, and the way you behave, and the way they are all connected,” Dr Millard says.
“It’s very empowering type of psychological treatment that equips service users with skills that they are able to use to maintain their wellbeing”
“Each of our courses follows an illustrated story of one or two characters who has symptoms that are similar to yours. You follow their journey back to recovery.
“Time and again we have people writing to us and saying they thought they were the only person experiencing a particular problem, and now they understand that they aren’t – and there are things they can do to help”.
Dr Millard says that one of the most important features of This Way Up is that everything it does is evidence based.
“That means when we create one of our courses we run it through scientific testing, just as you would test medication, so when we say something works, we know it does” he says.
“One of the most surprising facts has been that the research repeatedly shows that internet-based therapy is equally as effective as face-to-face treatment (which as a clinician, always shocks me).
“We have found 80% of This Way Up course participants report significant benefits, and 50% would no longer qualify for their original diagnosis once they complete the course.”
While the rise in This Way Up users is partly due to COVID, Dr Millard says it also reflects the service’s general ease of access.
“We are living in a world of waiting lists,” he says. “It’s very hard to get in to see psychologists and counsellors, so what can people do people do while waiting for traditional treatment?
“Our courses can be done at home. You are able to log on to the web in the privacy of your home, and you can start working through the courses at your own pace – with no waiting list.”
“In fact almost half of our users are accessing our programs outside of traditional business hours.
“This means you don’t have to take a day’s leave to go see a psychologist, and there are no travel costs – again (our course) is something you can do at home at your own pace.
“It’s really about providing choice, for some people online therapy is enough, for others a more blended model may be more appropriate – where the courses are used alongside face-to-face treatment”.
“One of our collaborations is with Headspace at Penrith where they use our courses to help young people learn psychological skills while they wait for more intensive treatment.”
Dr Millard says reducing barriers to care is one of This Way Up’s key aims.
“During the lockdown last year we developed a set of free specific COVID resources that were very bite-sized, with an audio track, that people can download and get a taste of a whole lot of psychological skills that we know work.”
This Way Up has also a series of free shorter wellbeing courses, the most popular being “Managing Insomnia”.
“Sleep difficulties are such a massive problem across the community, the course is a great way to start to understand how these resources work. People are often more comfortable seeking help for sleep than emotions.”
The other This Way Up treatment programs costs $5 a week for 12 weeks ($59), but are free with a GP or psychologist’s referral.
Dr Millard says that “many users find it helpful to have a local clinician involved to keep them accountable as they work through the course. We have also found that when someone pays for a program they are more likely to complete it and put the skills into action.”
But on the whole, he says people appreciate the course as they want to learn the things that are going to help them, with 90% reporting that they would recommend the service to a friend.
“Of course, during this difficult time we have to remember that anxiety is completely normal” he says.
“We don’t want to have no anxiety, as that places our health at risk and we don’t pay attention to important measures such as physical distancing”
“However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming, we are sitting at home crippled and with it interferes with our life.
“This Way Up offers the skills to take us back into that helpful zone, and take back control over our wellbeing.”
For more information visit: https://thiswayup.org.au