With the current huge market for technologies and applications, emerging tech can play its part in making a positive impact on mental health.
Technology is by no means a silver bullet for mental health conditions; in fact it is often the case that despite all of the amazing things we can now do using technology, it is at the root of many of society’s issues; the ability to receive emails wherever you go can cause any job to be more stressful, social media applications can stimulate insecurities and encourage bullying, and these – as well as various other examples - can then negatively affect mental health.
But there are ways that technology can play its part in making a positive impact on mental health – particularly those that are suffering through some as form of mental health issue such depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety.
Well-documented cases include using mindfulness or meditation apps, listening to particular types of music, or getting video-based sessions with psychiatrists, doctors and other care workers.
But while these are all worthy inclusions that are worth a try, there are even more sophisticated uses of technology to aid those with mental health conditions that are either being trialled, are already available or are arriving in the near future.
For example, digital intelligence company BioBeats launched a pilot study with employees at BNP Paribas and AXA regarding workplace stress management and wellbeing, using wearables and AI. The aim was to support employees on their journey towards wellbeing and stress management. The company’s software identifies stress patterns using sensors in smartphones and wearable devices, allowing users to better understand how their body and mind respond to stress and how it affects them in their work and personal life.
Meanwhile MIT spin-off Cogito developed a mobile app Companion assesses a user’s mental health through the sound of their voice by passively gathering all the things users say in a day, picking up on vocal cues that signal depression and other mood changes. The app analyses the tone, pitch and fluidity in the voice and tracks the level of engagement within a conversation, and uses the phone’s accelerometer to determine how active a user is. The technology is currently being used by The Department of VA, Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) for treatment and clinical trials.
Going a step further than the use of applications are organisations using virtual reality (VR). Cardiff University is combining VR with a treadmill in a trial aimed at enabling British veterans overcome PTSD.
“The technique involves asking veterans to take part in the study selecting images that take them back to their traumatic experiences, and we load these up onto a computer system and they walk on a treadmill as if they’re walking towards these images they’ve selected,” Professor Jonathan Bisson, who is a chief investigator of the project and a practising psychiatrist, told HNC.
The project, called 3MDR, aims to help the estimated four percent of British military veterans who suffer from PTSD. But, it is still too early to tell whether or not the trial has been successful.
“We wouldn’t look at whether it has been successful until we completed the trial of 42 people,” Professor Bisson says.
The issue has been that the university can only take on a certain amount of people at a time because of the availability of equipment and therapists; the treatment was initially developed in the Netherlands and Cardiff University has a lab that is capable of using the equipment required for the intervention – but it is the only one of its kind in Wales.
If 3MDR was successful, like many other sophisticated technologies, one of the potential hurdles of making it accessible to those with PTSD is costs.
“We’ve not discussed implementation in the NHS but costs are a potential hurdle and ensuring people can access these treatments is an important consideration – my view is that I think for treatment that requires major technological demands like 3MDR, I see that as a third line treatment for PTSD rather than first line and we’re trying to develop interventions that don’t take as much time which are more likely to be accessible whether they’re in the UK or internationally based,” Professor Bisson suggests.
VR has also been used to help those with other mental health conditions. Joanna Konstantopolou, a psychology working at Health Psychology Clinic in Harley Street, London, claims that VR therapy has a 90 percent success rate as a treatment, and is very effective at treating anxiety and phobias.
“It can help with anxiety by adopting relaxation techniques, cognitive restructuring and exploring negative events relating to anxiety,” she says.
There are a number of tech startups tackling mental health problems too; such as Xen.bot, a chatbot helping to support people’s mental health, Respond, computer vision software coded by its founder whose grandfather had dementia and struggled to identify objects, and a dementia coaching platform and Alexa bot from start-up RiseIQ.
Professor Bisson is hopeful that academics, researchers, technologists and start-ups will continue developing methods that could potentially help with mental health using technologies such as VR and AR, despite the costs. However, he adds that care must be taken when these are developed, to consult those who are suffering or have suffered from the mental health condition.
“These products need to be carefully developed with proper input from people who suffer from the mental health condition. For example, a member of our team is an individual that has suffered from PTSD and they’ve helped guide us on these interventions, and hopefully this means they’re more likely to be optimal for individuals who are suffering from PTSD,” he says.
Equally important, he adds, is testing the treatment properly and having an appropriate process in place to develop, modify and continuously improve the service.
“We subjected the patients to a randomised control trial test which means they are rigorously evaluated to see if they are actually effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD for individuals, and to check if they do that, they don’t cause problematic side effects not well tolerated by people,” he adds.
It’s clear there is a huge market for technologies and applications that can help those with mental health conditions, and while all of these may not be successful, or indeed may depend on the person’s individual responses, there is a case for those innovating in this space to keep trying new things. This is particularly important as the stigma around mental health is seemingly disappearing; aided by many public figures opening up about their past or ongoing experiences.
If these new technologies can help even a small proportion of those suffering with mental health conditions, then they can be considered a success.
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