Young people, technology and e-mental health: An interview

We interviewed Dr Andrew Campbell about the importance of using technology and e-mental health services in work with young people.

Guy lying on bed using tablet

Dr Campbell is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sydney and a practicing psychologist of child and adolescent psychology. He is also the lead researcher for Kids Helpline's Buddy Help pilot program, which is developing an online group therapy service for young people.


Q: Why are e-mental health services so important when working with young people?

Andrew Campbell: They’re popular with young people because [with e-mental health services] they don't have to necessarily speak to someone face-to-face, they don't have to speak to them on the phone even, they can just simply ask questions through text and it gives them time to frame their questions or at least look up material before they make a decision to contact somebody. E-mental health services are the doorway to mental health services for young people and obviously young people are very familiar with them.


Q: What is the future of e-mental health services? Where is it going in Australia and what can we expect to see over the next 5-10 years?

AC: I'd say that we're going to see a seamless service [integration] between the online and offline offerings. E-mental health services can be the entrance, the management and even the initial diagnosis used in conjunction with more traditional face-to-face services. A total integration across services is more cost effective than building bricks and mortar and training people at the highest levels. There are more and more counsellors and support workers, there are more and more triage people that are going to be able to come into the system and help people find the right services. E-mental health services help to direct them faster, more-effectively, and operate 24/7.


Q: How can professionals effectively engage the young people they work with through technology?

AC: Text messaging is the number one thing that will keep you connected with the young people you work with. Text is great for that quick "I want to check in" or "I want to send you a scale" or "I want to confirm your appointment". The second thing is the ability for young people to send an email and get a response within 24h. There's nothing better than a bit of bibliotherapy through an email where a young person can actually say “this is how I'm feeling right now and I don't know if I'm going to remember it the next time I see you at a session”. You've got that on record; you can talk about it in a face-to-face session and pick up right from where they were.

Then I'd be going to social media, it’s your go-to coffee shop. It's where you want to meet up with people and have an unwinding session. It’s great for free floating ideas, thoughts, beliefs and clients can feel as though people are listening. Social media is not so much of a talking format; it really is a listening format.

But my favourite technology to use with young people is actually games. Games seem to break the ice with any of your clients, it could be from the smallest game to the biggest most involved “World of Warcraft” type environment and I really strongly believe that we're not tapping enough of that yet


Q: What would you say to professionals who are worried about using e-mental health services in their work with young people?

AC: The evidence base for e-mental health is overwhelming now. In 2000 there were a lot of disbelievers and now we're 14 years in, and the amount of uptake of tools like Mood Gym is close to millions around the world. As a professional you need to approach it from a scientific point of view. You should ask “what is the evidence base for its use?”  As long as you inform your client of the risk just as you would inform a client of the risk of taking a medication, then your client still makes the choice. If you don't offer e-mental health tools you’re not providing a full suite of options for your client. The journals are there, the science is done, and it’s time to read up on it.


Q: What advice would you give to professionals who are thinking about using e-mental health services in their work?

AC: Go for it! You'd be crazy not to. At the end of the day a young person is going to want to know that there is a suite of tools they can use to get better. Medication is one, therapy is another but that ability to self-help is only going to be facilitated by the online world. If a service you need is not there now, keep looking because it will come. We can’t build enough physical health services to treat everyone so we have to approach it from a preventative perspective, which is online. It's probably the most unregulated, but if you as the professional learn about the tools and regulate the tools for your clients then you're really strengthening your relationship with them and you're more likely going to give a better therapeutic outcome by providing those options.


Dr Andrew Campbell                       
Dr Andrew Campbell is the lead researcher on Kids Helpline’s Buddy Help pilot program. Buddy Help is a new e-mental health program for young people, currently in its initial trial phase. This cutting edge program uses a social media platform to improve mental health outcomes for young people. Find out more about the Buddy Help program here.

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