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Research for Recovery: Virtual Healthcare Support

by Kathryn Denyer on behalf of UKRI

As it swept across the globe, COVID-19 dramatically altered the mental health landscape, creating unprecedented psychological struggles for millions of us and triggering a surge in digital transformation and technological advances to reshape our health systems.

Since March 2020, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has funded 3,600 research projects and initiatives, from mental health to the delivery of medical supplies. Their Research for Recovery infographic highlights how UK research is finding solutions to COVID-related public challenges, driving communities towards post-pandemic recovery.

Psychosocial Impacts of COVID-19

The pandemic has had a profound impact on health and livelihoods; introducing fear and anxiety associated with the risks of becoming infected with the virus and the damaging effects of multiple lockdowns, school closures, self-isolation and joblessness. The immense psychosocial impact of these restrictive measures left the most vulnerable among us unable to seek support from loved ones and engage in their communities.

Disruption of Mental Health Services

COVID-19 has also led to a catastrophic disruption of the mental health landscape. Urgent new mental health care needs escalated as COVID-related stress, anxiety and grief intensified. In the first year alone, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%, and mental health services have seen an increase in both the demand for support and in wait times to access it, with 84% of psychologists observing a rise in anxiety treatments.

Closures, staff shortages and the diversion of funds have meant that when people needed mental health support the most, these were simply not available to them.

The Rise of AI-Assisted Therapy

The rise of digital mental health care has raised the clinical value of Artificial Intelligence innovation. From the early stages of the virus’ spread to the later months of social distancing practices, AI has accelerated potential treatments, forecasted future infection rates and developed initiatives harnessing big data and smartphones to meet an onslaught of unprecedented mental health challenges.

AI within mental health services provides a more effective and personalised treatment plan, offering more insight into patients' needs and developing therapist techniques and training. Mental health professionals are using AI to improve the accuracy of diagnosis and treatments and are also turning to AI to help with stretched workloads.

AI chatbots have been introduced to help patients practice CBT strategies and manage their symptoms between appointments. They help patients identify emotions, acquire new coping skills to reduce anxiety levels and improve mental resilience.

Keeping Us Connected

A UKRI-funded programme provided mental health support to 500,000+ young people. Digital health app and mental health platform Wysa incorporates a system of self-care tools and exercises for teenagers to help increase their emotional resilience and reduce anxiety levels. The AI chatbot makes use of various forms of clinically reviewed cognitive-behavioural techniques to help users manage their mental health.

Wysa’s self-care tool helps users reframe and cope with negative feelings and organise and structure their thoughts, using cognitive-behavioural techniques backed by science and handpicked by therapists to help build mental resilience. Every conversation is based on techniques published in peer-reviewed clinical research.

Wysa's Adolescent Support Pack is being clinically reviewed and made available via social channels for children and teens, with thousands of users engaging with the content. From over 100,000 customer reviews, the mindfulness tool has been awarded a near-perfect score from approximately 100 million conversations. Around 87% of UK adolescents found the tool beneficial, with wellness scores improving in just two weeks.

The “Missing Middle” of Mental Health

Wysa's findings suggest that 60% of a workforce's mental health needs are not currently supported, and most remain undiagnosed. Wysa is now using AI to improve mental health throughout the UK for the working population, supporting adults who fall into the “missing middle” of mental health. The tool caters to the full spectrum of employee psychological needs by making them feel heard without being seen as weak.

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