Boosting mental health online

Man on laptop in evening

Image credit: Cottonbro by Pexels

Professor Philip Batterham is the 2021 Winner of the Tony Ayers Prize for Excellence in Research and Translational Medicine.

The pandemic has taught us that life goes on: online, that is. And mental health help is no exception.

Online mental health tools can be very successful in treating people with symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to Professor Philip Batterham, recently awarded the 2021 Tony Ayers Prize for excellence in research and translational medicine for his work in this space.

“There are definite advantages to online interventions. They are available 24/7, you can dip in and out of them to get what you need, and you can access them in between sessions with a psychologist or where there is limited access to services. There is also evidence to suggest a preventative effect as well,” says Batterham.

Many online tools are based on cognitive behavioural therapy. This method of therapy helps the user identify unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, then offer key strategies to address them. Different online tools support the user with various levels of guidance by a clinician.

“Typically you see more guidance is associated with better outcomes. But that's not to say that you don't get high levels of effectiveness with purely self-directed interventions,” says Batterham.

“Over the past 20 years we’ve learnt that online programs are quite effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Indeed people using these internet therapy programs are nearly four times as likely to have clinically significant improvements in their symptoms compared to those who are randomly allocated to receive no program.”

Some of the benefits are around psychoeducation, i.e. teaching people about mental health, but many are therapeutic tools that give people strategies and coping mechanisms to reduce their symptoms of depression and anxiety.

However, Batterham points out that online interventions are not suitable for everyone.

“We wouldn't typically recommend online interventions as a replacement for therapy, particularly for anyone experiencing a crisis, but they are still a useful adjunct and tool,” according to Batterham.

There are currently dozens of online tools that Australians can choose from to help their mental health, including those that Batterham and his team have developed or assessed. Some are accessed through mental health clinicians, while others are freely available. To help people choose a tool that suits them best Batterham and his team have developed an online directory, called Beacon, of evidence-based interventions. The directory details the characteristics of each tool, the evidence underpinning them, and any associated fee.

Only about 35% of Australian adults with mental health difficulties get professional help. There are various reasons for this: practical factors such as the location of services, time and financial pressures. Some people might also feel a negative social stigma associated with seeking help. The ability for the community to access online intervention tools has added another tool to our mental health help arsenal, and allows the community to choose how and where they get help.

**Batterham’s commitment to mental health research and application has been recognised with the Tony Ayers Prize for excellence in research and translational medicine. This award is in honour of long-term John James Foundation Board member Mr Tony Ayers AC.

You can learn more about the science behind online mental health tools in Batterham’s talk.

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