‘Mental health support: The internet is breaking down barriers for older Aussies’

Sep 20, 2020
You may not be able to see a therapist in person right now, but there's help online, and it's easy to access. Source: Getty

Taking care of our mental health is more important than ever, with the outbreak of the coronavirus causing a stressful environment for all. Some have experienced heightened symptoms of depression or anxiety, while others are facing mental health challenges they’ve never faced before.

Having access to support is essential, and while there’s ample professionals and services available, unfortunately for older adults there’s some big barriers that are stopping them for receiving help. Older adults have one of the lowest rates of mental health treatment in Australia, with only around one in three older people with a mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, receiving the treatment they need.

For many years mental health treatment involved travelling to a therapist’s office once a week for face-to-face treatment. It’s an effective option for those who live close to specialist psychologists and can travel easily, but unfortunately there are others who don’t have this privilege.

For those who live in rural and regional locations it’s much harder to access treatment, with the closest therapist sometimes many hours away. This presents a huge barrier for those with physical health problems or those who can’t drive.

Meanwhile, during recent times, with the outbreak of Covid-19, face-to-face therapy sessions have become increasingly difficult for everyone due to the increased risk of contracting the virus. Thankfully though there’s internet-delivered treatments available. This type of treatment is delivered by phone or email with a therapist, and although it may seem unusual for the older population, it’s a promising way to improve access to treatment now and into the future.

What are internet-delivered treatments for mental health?

Although historically older adults have typically been less familiar with digital technology and the internet, this trend is rapidly changing. Access to technology and digital literacy has increased substantially among older adults, with around 90 per cent of Australians aged over 50 now having access to at least one internet-enabled device. This is good news because it means they can be connected to support online.

Internet-delivered treatments can be accessed using a computer, tablet or iPad, or through dedicated apps on mobile devices. The most common type of internet-delivered treatment is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (or iCBT) which teaches people skills to change the way they think and the way they respond to challenges in their life. It allows people to access information at their own pace, at whatever time of day suits them best, and from the comfort of their own home. Programs usually include stories about other people with similar types of problems and how they use the skills to improve their wellbeing.

ICBT also includes activities or worksheets to apply the skills to your personal situation. And while some programs are self-help only, evidence shows that these programs are most effective when they include some sort of support from a therapist by phone, email or text.

Do the treatments work?

There has been a lot of research with younger/middle-aged adults, and with children and teens, showing that iCBT is effective for a range of problems, including anxiety and depression. In these age-groups, several studies that have shown similar levels of improvements between iCBT and face-to-face CBT.

Although there’s a much smaller amount of research that has been conducted on iCBT with older adults, the evidence is also very promising. Several studies have shown a significant improvement in anxiety and depression symptoms among older adults after completing iCBT. However, there are very few iCBT programs that are specifically designed for older adults.

What is Ageing Wisely Online?

Ageing Wisely Online is an iCBT program that is based on the face-to-face Ageing Wisely program which has more than 10 years of research supporting its effectiveness for treating anxiety and depression in older people. The program includes videos where clinical psychologists and academic researchers present skills and information.

The program also features Australian actors, including Logie winner and OAM recipient Noeline Brown (from shows such as The Mavis Bramston Show, My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours?, The Naked Vicar Show and Blankety Blanks ) and Chairman of Australian Rotary Health, Gregory Ross (from hit shows like Cop Shop and Bellbird) as ‘Deidre’ and ‘Frank’, two older people who use the skills in the program to manage their symptoms of anxiety and depression.

This program was co-designed with older adults and their mental health clinicians to ensure it’s simple and engaging to use, and addresses a range of concerns that older people might have about online treatments. For example, older people are often concerned about the confidentiality of their information online, so the program has been developed in a way where no personal information is stored on the internet server and all information that people write about their thoughts and feelings is stored only on their personal computer.

The program has been developed to be easy-to-use for those with very limited technology skills. There’s even a video which demonstrates how to use the website on a range of different devices, the ability to enter responses directly into activity sheets (rather than complex downloading and editing) and the ability to save or print personal summary sheets after each module. This program is currently available cost-free as part of a research trial at Macquarie University.

This article was co-written by Dr Carly Johnco (developer of Ageing Wisely online) and Professor Viviana Wuthrich.

If you or anyone you know needs help: Lifeline — 13 11 14; MensLine Australia — 1300 789 978; BeyondBlue — 1300 224 636; Suicide Call Back Service — 1300 659 467; Headspace — 1800 650 890; Kids Helpline — 1800 551 800.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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