Can an app improve the 12-week wait for mental health support?

Over a million people are referred to UK mental health services each year but may have to wait 12 weeks or more to receive treatment or support.

Now a project co-led by the University of Plymouth is investigating whether a digital health app, Wysa, can support people during this waiting period to manage their mental health and improve their resilience.

The Wysa app uses an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot and a series of self-care exercises to help people manage their mental health using clinically-reviewed cognitive-behavioural techniques. The research project will examine its use on patients’ symptoms of anxiety and depression during the referral process for standard UK mental health services.

The project was one of a handful funded by a £36 million boost from central government for AI technologies to transform NHS care, in the second wave of the NHS AI Lab’s AI in Health and Care Award, alongside funding from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The work, which will take place in the University’s Centre for Health Technology, will see collaboration from Wysa, Imperial College London and Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust.

In the study, randomly selected participants on mental health waiting lists will be given access to Wysa at the point of referral and encouraged to explore the self-support tools.

Participants will be able to monitor their levels of anxiety and depression using questionnaires provided through the app. Their results will be compared with a control group of people who are on the waiting list but not using Wysa.

Service users’ outcome measures scores will be saved into their electronic patient record to make triaging and escalating with the mental health service more effective and supportive.

The aims of this project support the NHS Long Term Plan’s efforts to promote digitally-enabled care, improve access to mental health support, and reduce wait times.

Dr Edward Meinert, Associate Professor of eHealth in the Centre for Health Technology, said: 

“Mental health conditions place a large burden on individuals, healthcare systems, and the economy – and this has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Waiting times and unmet need are of serious concern, so this project is taking a step to do something about it.

“Timely support provision and early identification of deteriorating mental health could enable earlier interventions for those who need it and improve service efficiency. Early intervention during this critical period may be the key to reducing the burden of mental health concerns on the health care system. We’re really grateful to have received the funding and look forward to starting the evaluations.”

Centre for Health Technology

Bringing together digital health and health technology expertise from across the University to drive the development, evaluation and implementation of innovative technologies, products, services and approaches to transform health and social care.

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