A study of 249 people found that those with serious mental health problems were less likely to have digital skills
“Digital exclusion is increasingly concentrated in vulnerable populations including older people with severe mental ill health who are likely to be heavier users of healthcare services. The increasing delivery of health services online will mean those who are digitally excluded will be unable to access them." Dr Panagiotis Spanakis, honorary fellow, University of York
People with severe mental illness struggle to access key services because they don’t have the necessary digital skills, according to research from the University of York.
The study found that adults with conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more likely to lack digital skills than the wider population. Because many services relating to health and social care are now online, people with these conditions find it harder to gain access to them. As a consequence, they are at greater risk of social isolation.
The Skills and Proficiency in Digital Essential Requirements (SPIDER) study assessed the digital skills of 249 people aged between 21 and 84 with severe mental health problems. The study, published in Perspectives in Public Health, found that 42.2% of participants did not have a basic foundation level of digital skills, as defined by the government’s Essential Digital Skills (EDS) framework. The EDS sets the standards for all formal digital skills training programmes in the UK.
Participants completed a survey online or offline. They provided information on their digital skills based on the EDS framework, sociodemographic information, and digital access. The study represents the first time that the EDS has been benchmarked in people with severe mental ill-health.
The researchers measured three types of skills: foundation skills, such as updating and changing passwords, or using device settings to improve usability; skills for life, which included setting up an email account, using a search engine and staying safe online; and skills for work, which included setting up and managing an account on a professional online network and organising, storing and sharing information.
They found that people with severe mental ill health were more than twice as likely to experience a deficit in either foundation or life skills (46%) as the general population (22%). Participants in employment were more likely to have foundation skills, though employment is less common among people with severe mental illness.
Although most people in the study (86%) owned a digital device, this on its own did not appear to reduce digital exclusion.
The researchers said that the findings point to a “high risk for digital exclusion and the need for focused policy and tailored health sector support to ensure people retain access to key services and develop digital skills and confidence.”
Dr Panagiotis Spanakis, honorary fellow at the university and the lead researcher on the study, said: “Digital exclusion is increasingly concentrated in vulnerable populations including older people with severe mental ill health who are likely to be heavier users of healthcare services. The increasing delivery of health services online will mean those who are digitally excluded will be unable to access them.
“Tailored training in digital skills for people with severe mental illness along with confidence-building and motivational measures would help to address digital exclusion.”
Professor Simon Gilbody, director of the mental health and addiction research group at the university, said: “With the drive towards comprehensive digital healthcare within the NHS, the importance of digital inclusion for health and social care should be acknowledged. Reducing the digital divide has the potential to diminish health inequalities.”
This research, demonstrating that people with severe mental illness are less likely to have digital skills, and therefore more likely to be excluded from digital services, is both valuable and concerning. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more services have been offered online only, and we must be immensely careful as a society to make sure that everyone who needs those services has access to them. Very often, it is the most vulnerable who are least likely to have the digital knowhow to access these services, thus exacerbating the disadvantage they already have. The severely mentally ill are a highly vulnerable group, and it is essential that they are not excluded from vital services.