The massive shortage and inequitable distribution of skilled mental health providers represents a key barrier to accessing services worldwide. The absence of these providers is one reason that most of the people affected—75 percent in many low-income countries—do not have access to the treatment they need. Research shows that non-mental-health specialists, such as social workers, general practitioners and teachers, can deliver high-quality care and support with appropriate supervision and guidance. Digital platforms may provide one approach to help rectify this crisis through increasing the availability of high-quality training to deliver mental health care.
Several recent initiatives are addressing this issue. The WHO Academy aims to provide digital learning to health workers across the world on a range of health topics, including mental health. EMPOWER is a nonprofit initiative from Harvard Medical School that provides digital training to support the delivery of evidence-based psychosocial interventions. UNICEF is providing its Caring for the Caregiver program to community workers using online and in-person training. These examples show the many ways organizations respond to the training needs of mental health specialists, including psychologists and nonprofessionals such as community volunteers, social workers, general practitioners, nurses and teachers. This is achieved through the use of digital platforms, often in conjunction with in-person trainings.
While direct online training may help to address the challenge, it is important to ascertain that trainings lead to high-quality care. The joint WHO and UNICEF project Ensuring Quality in Psychological Support (EQUIP) is addressing this issue. Rather than providing trainings directly, EQUIP uses an online platform to support trainers to monitor and build the skills and competency of people trained to deliver mental health interventions to children, youth and adults.
The potential benefits of digital tools do not end with training of providers. Self-help interventions consist of skills and techniques to help individuals reduce stress and symptoms of mental disorders. They are often delivered with the support of a briefly trained facilitator, who may help providers and communities alike when they are part of broader organizational and policy efforts for assisting people to deal with stress. The WHO has been working to develop such interventions, such as its forthcoming Step-by-Step program for adults with depression and a stress management guide that is available for download in many languages.
As the need for mental health services grows, it is essential to meet the demand with a highly trained workforce. By investing in digital technologies, we can train and support providers and deliver lower-cost mental health and psychosocial intervention strategies for all children, young people and their caregivers. Digital technologies are only one part of the solution to scaling up mental health support while ensuring that such initiatives are part of a wider effort to address the many reasons for low availability of services.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.