Objectives: To explore the experiences of service users, carers and staff seeking or providing secondary mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Design: Qualitative interview study, co-designed with mental health service users and carers.
Methods: We conducted semi-structured, telephone or online interviews with a purposively constructed sample; a lived experience researcher conducted and analysed interviews with service users. Analysis was based on the constant comparison method.
Setting: NHS secondary mental health services in England between June and August 2020.
Participants: Of 65 participants, 20 had either accessed or needed to access English secondary mental healthcare during the pandemic; 10 were carers of people with mental health difficulties; 35 were members of staff working in NHS secondary mental health services during the pandemic.
Results: Experiences of remote care were mixed. Some service users valued the convenience of remote methods in the context of maintaining contact with familiar clinicians. Most participants commented that a lack of non-verbal cues and the loss of a therapeutic ‘safe space’ challenged therapeutic relationship building, assessments, and identification of deteriorating mental wellbeing. Some carers felt excluded from remote meetings and concerned that assessments were incomplete without their input. Like service users, remote methods posed challenges for clinicians who reported uncertainty about technical options and a lack of training. All groups expressed concern about intersectionality exacerbating inequalities and the exclusion of some service user groups if alternatives to remote care are lost.
Conclusions: Though remote mental healthcare is likely to become increasingly widespread in secondary mental health services, our findings highlight the continued importance of a tailored, personal approach to decision-making in this area. Further research should focus on which types of consultations best suit face-to-face interaction, and for whom and why, and which can be provided remotely and by which medium.


This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Cite as

Liberati, E., Richards, N., Parker, J., Willars, J., Scott, D., Boydell, N., Pinfold, V., Martin, G., Dixon-Woods, M. & Jones, P. 2021, 'Remote care for mental health:qualitative study with service users, carers and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic', BMJ Open, 11(4). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2021-049210

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Last updated: 17 June 2022
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