How digital health could revolutionise the mental healthcare system

The immediate need for quality mental healthcare in America is huge – 43.8 million adult Americans experience mental illness every year.

But of those people, an estimated 60% do not seek out mental health services, largely because of the stigma around mental illness and the difficulty of accessing care.

The good news is that digital health tools can help tackle both the stigma and the lack of accessibility around mental healthcare.

The most obvious and clear solution comes with the pervasiveness of mobile technology: 68% of Americans own a smartphone, and 45% own a tablet, making mobile technology an easily accessible tool for improving care.

It also provides those who struggle with the stigma of mental illness a sense of security and empowerment: they can learn more about their symptoms and understand that they’re not alone in their suffering.

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Connecting with peers via digital health solutions can help people get past the first, often debilitating, step of outreach, allowing them to seek help more confidently, when it feels right.

Mobile technology also increases accessibility to mental health specialists across the country. Many therapists have started using video chatting tools for appointments, increasing access to care for all people, whether they’re in rural areas or homebound for other health reasons.

Additionally, therapists often use simple phone conversations, SMS and email to provide support between in-person sessions.

With many of today’s mental health apps, people can track their own behaviours, symptoms and moods, and report that back to their therapist, making in-person sessions more efficient and improving the quality of dialogue between patient and therapist.

The first wave of digital mental healthcare solutions is focused on informing and empowering people, most commonly around conditions like anxiety, depression and insomnia.

While each works with different topics and populations, most provide education about risk signs and symptoms, as well as positive and negative coping mechanisms.

They also include built in support systems, allowing for peer-to-peer contact and access to professional resources. Most of these applications also have tools for getting immediate help in the case of an emergency.

So what’s next?

Right now, most mental healthcare apps require proactivity and outreach from the patient. However, the use of passive monitoring, which occurs in the background of a mobile device, tracking movement, the frequency of messaging and more, could change this system drastically. Apps like are experimenting with passive monitoring.

Consider the scenario of a person suffering from depression: if someone is in bed and not moving for long periods of time, the app would flag a care provider.

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Similarly, if someone has stopped making social connections via their mobile devices, the app would alert key members of the care team. This provides the patient valuable support when they most need it, without needing to ask for help.

In the future, passive monitoring could also include the use of voice scanning technology.

A recent development by MIT’s Lincoln Labs shows that measuring the acoustics of a person’s voice can help detect signs of depression, brain injury and even Parkinson’s disease.

Employing this technology could prove useful in catching early warning signs of mental illness. Combined with artificial intelligence (AI), the impact of passive monitoring in detecting mental illness could be even more dramatic.

Analysing trends in a person’s speech, word choice and word combinations has been proven to predict psychosis, a sign of schizophrenia.

Researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre have also shown that analysing a person’s responses to a defined set of simple questions over time can be used to identify suicidal thoughts.

Connecting mental health providers to this valuable insight could increase both the quality of care and the quality of life for their patients substantially.

>See also: Talking technology trends in workplace health

Passive monitoring, artificial intelligence and other new technologies can sound daunting and impersonal. That’s why the industry must make sure technology does not replace people.

Digital health solutions should never be a replacement for connecting with a therapist, for example, and those seeking help shouldn’t be diagnosing themselves using technology, either.

Instead, technology should be used in conjunction with talk therapy, to increase accessibility to care, empower and educate people.

Technology has the potential to accelerate mental healthcare treatment, encourage proactivity and lessen stigma worldwide. As America works toward improving mental healthcare, digital health technology will help care move more quickly and efficiently than ever before.


Sourced by Rebecca Lord, head of user experience at digital health consultancy Medullan

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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