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Digital solutions critical as youth depression symptoms double

Wednesday, 19 August 2020  
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Picture: Terry Fleming, senior lecturer in population health, Victoria University of Wellington editor Rebecca McBeth


Nearly a quarter of students reported significant symptoms of depression in the latest Youth2000 survey and one fifth had difficulty getting help.

Co-lead of the Youth19 Rangatahi smart study Theresa (Terry) Fleming from Victoria University’s Faculty of Health says that difficulties in accessing support will have only increased with the arrival of Covid19 and digital services are a key part of addressing the problem.

“These surveys show that we have major trouble meeting current needs, let alone increasing needs, and I really strongly believe that digital mental health tools will increasingly be an important part of the solution,” she tells

The latest Youth2000 survey shows that the number of students reporting significant symptoms of depression has almost doubled for many groups since 2012 and symptoms are higher amongst female, Māori, Pasifika and Asian students; those in lower income communities; and those from sexual and gender minority groups. 
“Young people need adults who care, connection and fun things to do, hope for the future and help when things go wrong: digital support services which can be accessed 24/7 are a key part of this as we have more demand than we can meet through traditional services,” Fleming says.

The first national lockdown due to Covid-19 resulted in a significant increase in calls to telehealth services such as 1737 Need to Talk? and YouthLine as young people experienced more stress and worries. 

The inability of people to access traditional services during this time made online mental health tools an important part of the country’s response, she explains.
Having worked in South Auckland, Fleming has seen first-hand the difficulties some families and youth have in accessing face-to-face services, particularly as these are usually delivered during normal work hours.

She says while there is a digital divide that needs to be considered when rolling out digital tools, there is also massive inequity of access in the current system.

Fleming is a co-developer of the SPARX tool, which delivers treatment for youth with mild to moderate depression or anxiety through a first-person adventure game.

It has been freely available in New Zealand for four years and has been accessed by thousands of young people.  

She says tools such as this can be delivered at scale and provide flexibility and choice to users. They are particularly useful for reaching people in rural or remote communities and those without flexible work hours.

While some mental health professionals have been reluctant to embrace online therapies or consultations, she says the two approaches need to work together, rather than competing or replacing face-to-face interactions.

Fleming will speak to the opportunities and challenges afforded by digital mental health services during an Live webinar, eMental Health and the pandemic, on September 2 at 12.30pm.

If you would like to provide feedback on this news story, please contact the editor Rebecca McBeth.

Read more news:

Youth mental health digital ecosystem created
Is e-therapy the answer to our youth mental health issues?

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