There is strong evidence that promoting mental health and preventing mental illness improves human, social, and economic capital. However, at any one time, mental disorders in the UK affect one in every six children and one in every six adults, at an overall annual cost of £70–100 billion a year (McManus et al, 2016; NHS England 2021; Stevenson 2017). The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the cost-of-living crisis, have exacerbated the burden of poor mental health.
During the lockdown phase/s of the COVID-19 pandemic, community and voluntary organisations were often unable to provide support for their members in-person. Many of these organisations used technology to remain connected to the people they were trying to help. For example, they used their websites to communicate information and/or they used video-conferencing software such as Zoom to deliver workshops, training sessions, and social activities.
Previous research has found that digital technology can help improve mental health and wellbeing, making it easier for people to find information about health, reduce loneliness by facilitating online connections, and to find social activities. However, digital and online services are not accessible or useful for everyone. Some people do not have access to a computer or a smartphone or have internet in their home. In addition, many people do not have the confidence or skills required to use digital technology. During the pandemic, these people may have been at more of a disadvantage than normal and at greater risk of poor mental health than those who were easily able to access online services and activities.
This is a problem going forward because many organisations are still offering services and activities online instead of in-person, and digital technology is becoming an integral part of our day-to-day lives.
This study will explore the role of digital technology used by community organisations to support the mental health and wellbeing of their communities, particularly groups less likely to have access to digital services and activities. Specifically, this study will aim to:
- Understand how community organisations that use using digital technology help (or hinder) people to form meaningful social connections and prevent loneliness.
- Find out how and whether community organisations are using digital technology to provide services on a regular basis.
- Discover the most effective ways to use digital technology to provide services and activities for people who experience disadvantage within society.
- Find out if the increased use of digital technology is unintentionally leading to some groups of people being “left behind” and therefore at more risk of poor mental health.
- Find out if the increased use of digital technology is helping some groups of people who were previously “left behind” or struggled to access support.
Design and methods
This project will seek answers to these questions by recruiting up to six community or voluntary organisations across England. We will select organisations that aim to support older adults, people who live in deprived areas, people from minority ethnic populations and people with experience of poor mental health.
The study will take a “realist-informed approach” to collecting and understanding information about how using digital technology may improve mental health and wellbeing. This means we will take into account that the real-world is complex and that to understand how a service works, it is important to consider that what works for some people in some circumstances may not work at all for other people in other contexts.
To ensure wide reaching, meaningful dissemination of our study findings, all our dissemination materials will be co-produced alongside our public and practice partners and promoted using their channels. Towards the end of the study, we also plan to co-facilitate two knowledge workshops in community spaces identified by our public partners (one in the North of England and one in the South of England) that bring together researchers, study participants, public partners, practice partners, and wider members of the community members of community, statutory and voluntary to network, share learning and launch our dissemination materials.