The role of digital technology in men’s mental health

Dr Chuk Anyaegbuna, Clinical Service Lead at Koa Health, shares how digital healthcare and technology can support men’s mental health & reduce stigma

For people suffering from mental health problems there has never been a better time to seek support. This is because the stigma surrounding mental health has continued to dissipate. According to the latest National Attitudes to Mental Illness Survey, attitudes towards people with mental health challenges has improved by 9.6% since 2009. People’s openness to having contact with someone with a mental health problem has improved by 11% over the same period. 

Yet despite this progress, when it comes to men’s mental health, persistent stigmas and stereotypes remain, acting as dangerous obstacles to receiving care. For many men, talking about mental health struggles is still considered “unmanly,” or somehow weak. As a result, help often arrives all too late. It’s a telling and desperately sad statistic that in the UK, suicide is the number one killer of men under the age of 45. 

The statistics reflect a serious gender imbalance around the consequences of mental health problems. Men are approximately three times more likely than women to take their own lives, or to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. It’s reasonable to suggest that the unwillingness of many men to discuss their struggles lies behind this disparity – after all, just 36% of NHS referrals for talking therapies are for men. Unless men can be helped to seek help sooner, the slide from mental health struggle to full-blown crisis will be difficult to stop.  

However, encouraging more men to come forward with their problems is a significant challenge, and it will not be solved overnight. What’s required is nothing less than a systemic transformation.

How digital technology can help men’s mental health

With men statistically less inclined to use traditional mental health services and/or ask for help, simply ensuring that face-to-face services are available is not enough. Healthcare practitioners, employers, and charities all have a role to play in helping to provide discreet solutions that are easy to access and less stigmatised than a visit to a therapist.   

Here, self-guided approaches that can be accessed through smartphones will likely prove effective. Such approaches are highly personal, and easy to use. Anyone can use them without feeling embarrassed or judged.

This approach is particularly well suited to the “missing middle”, the underserved cohort of people who fall somewhere between mentally healthy and mentally unwell. This group may not need dedicated, one-to-one support, but would benefit from using evidence-based digital tools to help manage their mental health and general wellbeing.    

According to Mind, there are a range of factors that can help encourage men to seek help, such as making support and information available online, providing assurances of discretion and anonymity, and making help available at convenient times. So long as they follow robust data ethics principles, mental health apps can help achieve these goals.  

 

Proven efficacy of mental health tools

Importantly, the use of app-based interventions is about more than accessibility and convenience: evidence suggests that they can help improve outcomes. Studies have shown that mental health tools are effective in supporting stress management, as well as in the treatment of depression, body dysmorphia, and anxiety, among other mental health difficulties. 

However, at present just 3% of the thousands of solutions available on app stores have a sufficient evidence base to back up their claims. 85% fall short of ORCHA’s criteria for data privacy, clinical assurance, and user experience (the world’s largest single source for digital health compliance). If app-based interventions are to play a greater role in helping men with mental health issues, this needs to be addressed with urgency. 

How employers can help men’s mental health with digital health solutions

Given the broad range of solutions available, and their wildly differing quality levels, many men will need help assessing which to use. This is where employers can play an important role. 

Research suggests that men respond well to information provided to them by role models. Therefore, there is an opportunity for managers and business leaders to lead by example with open discussions around mental health and the support available. Given that employees increasingly expect their employers to be more supportive of mental health issues, the timing could not be better. Now is the time for businesses to invest in credible, comprehensive, bespoke digital health solutions that deliver care across the mental health continuum.  

While it is encouraging to see that the stigma of mental health is reducing in many countries, there are still far too many tragedies. By taking a new tack and using technology to prioritise anonymity and access, healthcare providers, charities, and employers may finally start to shift the dial.  


Dr Chuk Anyaegbuna, Clinical Service Lead at Koa Health

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