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We must ensure that the 'hype and hope' of digital technology for mental health doesn’t flounder for lack of evidence

Digital technology is often talked about as having the potential to transform mental healthcare - connecting people, services and data in new and exciting ways. But given this promise, we need to ensure that the ‘hype and hope’ of digital technology for mental health doesn’t flounder for lack of good evidence and research addressing clinically relevant questions.

At NIHR MindTech Healthcare Technology Co-operative, we have built a collaborative project to work with the James Lind Alliance to identify research questions about using digital technologies for mental health problems, and then prioritise them.

Our goal is to find out which 10 questions people with lived experience of mental health problems and health and social care professionals think are the most important

Back in Spring 2017, we opened up a consultation inviting people to send us their questions about digital technology for mental health. At the time, we didn’t know how many people would respond or how many questions they would have. We now know that over 600 people had around 1,500 questions.

Apps, apps and more apps…

As you might expect, there were loads of questions about apps, but not just apps. In the mix were questions about a wide range of technologies - everyday things like SMS text messaging and email, video calling, social media and online forums, through to more cutting edge innovations such as computer games, artificial intelligence and chatbots, virtual reality, wearables and sensors.

The questions also covered a wide range of issues, from getting access and removing barriers to using digital, through to how to use technologies in the best, most effective way. Many people asked about whether digital is intended to replace human face-to-face contact and, if so, what will be lost (or what are the benefits).

Questioners were also concerned about key groups of people and how the growth of digital technology would affect them, for example, older people, young people, people from different cultural backgrounds, and the socially disadvantaged.

Funnelling down to the top 10

The result of the work to gather in and then carefully check all the questions means that we are confident there are lots of unanswered questions about using digital technology for mental health - 134 in our list (to be precise!). To reach our final list of the most important 10 research priorities, we need lots of people to pick their personal top 10.

Each person will have their own view on the important areas for future research - their personal experience of how digital can be used, it’s benefits and the challenges or potential risks will vary from person to person, situation to situation. That’s ok - everyone's personal choices will be counted.

All we need is a few minutes of your time to complete a short survey. It’ll take about 10 minutes to complete and, at the end, you can enter a prize draw to be in with the chance of winning one of three prizes - £50 to spend at Amazon, a subscription to the Mental Elf (three available) or a subscription to the Evidence Based Mental Health journal (three available). The survey will stay open until early 2018.

What happens next?

Once we’ve heard from people, we’ll count up the votes for each question to find the top ranked 25. These questions will be discussed, debated and ranked at the one day workshop in March 2018. A group of 30 people with a range of experiences and perspectives will work together to agree which of the questions are the 10 most important for research.

The final stage will be widely publicising these questions so that researchers and research funders know where to focus their attention. We’ll update you on the workshop and final top 10 in Spring 2018. 

Take part in the survey here.


Lucy Simons

Lucy has been a mental health services researcher since 1998 and has a strong interest in ‘active involvement’. That is, how people experiencing mental distress can direct their own ...