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Online depression therapy: How does it work and why has it been criticised?

In 2021-2022 alone, more than half a million people were referred to depression and anxiety services in England (PA Archive)
In 2021-2022 alone, more than half a million people were referred to depression and anxiety services in England (PA Archive)

Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual event focused on Brits’ mental well-being, is taking place this week.

Between May 15 and May 21, people of all ages are being encouraged to increase their understanding of anxiety and find out how they can stop it from becoming a problem.

The event has coincided with the NHS in England green-lighting nine new online talking-therapy treatments for those struggling with anxiety and depression.

In 2021-2022 alone, more than half a million people were referred to depression and anxiety services. The NHS is hoping that online depression therapy can help reduce patients’ wait for care.

So what exactly is online depression therapy, who can access it, and why have some experts criticised it? Here is everything we know.

How does online depression therapy work?

Online depression therapy are to be offered by the NHS in England through nine new digital therapy options.

The sessions — the start date of have not yet been revealed — will be delivered via a website or an app. They will be based on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recommends six of these therapies for those with anxiety disorders and three to treat depressive disorders.

Following a formal assessment with a trained practitioner, depression patients will be given 90 minutes to spend with a therapist, as opposed to the eight hours offered during standard care. Those with anxiety will be offered four hours with a clinician, compared with the 10 they would get under normal care.

Why has online depression therapy been criticised by some experts?

Many experts in the field say that a short digital interaction is not a viable long-term solution to address mental health issues.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’s Dr David Rigby said that while the digital therapies might make it easier for some vulnerable patients to get help, it was not a permanent solution.

Mental health charity Sane agrees. The charity’s founder and CEO, Marjorie Wallace CBE said the digital offerings were “no substitute for a one-to-one relationship with someone who knows their story”.

The BBC quoted her as saying: “Our experience with those who contact us is that self-diagnosis and techniques of self-management do not always reach the layers of their inner mental pain and can leave them feeling even more unsafe and alone.”

Nice interim director of medical technology and digital evaluation, Mark Chapman, said: “One of our priorities is to get the best care to people fast while at the same time ensuring value for money for the taxpayer — these digitally enabled therapies do both.”

The institute will over the next few years study the results of the online therapies and how cost-effective they are.