Mental Health and Technology

Technology has opened a frontier in mental health support and data collection, giving opportunities for researchers, clinicians, and the public to access help, monitor progress, and have a deeper understanding of mental health being. This technology is able to be accessed from apps in mobile phones, smartphones, and tablets.

Dror Ben-Zeev Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington believes that mental health professionals need to take advantage of the progressing state of smartphones and other new technology that add to mental health care.

He told Psychiatric News, “There will still be breakthroughs in hardware and software, but we are at a stage of maturation with this technology where we should be moving into real-world deployments as opposed to research experiments.”

I agree with Ben-Zeev, technology is intertwined so much in people’s lives these days, why not have it be combined with their mental health? Individuals with mental illness, clinicians, caregivers, and loved ones will be supportive of these technological interventions.

I observed that there are just millions of apps dedicated to  mental health well-being. How does one find the right app for them? First we have to know the types of mental health apps that are out there. The types are:

  1. Self-management Apps: Self-management means that the person puts information into the app so that the app can provide feedback. An example of this would be medication reminders and tools for managing stress and anxiety.

2. Apps for Improving Thinking Skills: These apps help people to rewire their thinking from being maladaptive to being beneficial. These apps are targeted to people with severe mental     illness.

3. Skill Training Apps:  Skill-Training apps help users learn new coping and/or thinking skills through a game like format. For instance, a user may watch an educational video about anxiety management and the importance of a support system. Then, the person may choose some new strategies to use the app to track how often they are using their new coping mechanism.

4. Illness Management and Supported Care: This app allows the user to interact with peers or send information to a trained health provider who can offer guidance and therapy options.       Researchers are working to see how much human interaction is needed for app based treatment to work.

5. Passive Symptom Tracker: Developers are putting in work in creating apps that can collect data through the sensors in smartphones. The sensors are able to record movement patterns, social interactions, behavior at different times of the day, vocal tone and speed, and many more. The goal of these apps is to support a range of users, including individuals with serious mental illness.

6. Data Collection: Data collection automatically gathers information without the help of the user. Receiving information from a large amount of people at the same time helps researchers understand mental health better and helps them develop better interventions.

There are many advantages to mobile care. They include:

  • Convenience: Treatment can take anytime and anyplace.
  • Anonymity: Individuals are able to seek treatment without involving other people.
  • An Introduction to Care:  Technology may be first step for people who have avoided mental health care in the past.
  • Lower Cost: Some apps are free or cost less than traditional care.
  • Service to more people: Technology can help mental health providers offer treatment in remote areas or to many people in crisis (following a natural disaster or a terror attack.)

As with any new technology, there are cons. The cons of mobile apps providing mental health care treatment include:

  • Effectiveness: Where’s the evidence to support that this app will help my mental health being? The biggest concern with technological interventions is obtaining the scientific evidence that it works.
  • Who is it for and for Whom?: Another concern is if this app is going to work for all people and for all mental health conditions.
  • Privacy: Apps deal with sensitive health information and developers have to guarantee that this information won’t be sold to any third parties.
  • Regulation: There is a question on who or will should regulate mental health technology and the data.
  • Guidance: There is no industry wide standards to help consumers know if an app or mobile technology is effective or not.

There are major technology companies that are open to integrating mental health care in their company. Take Apple for example. The company is looking for a Siri Software engineer for health and wellness. The job description specifies a need for people with peer counseling or psychology backgrounds, as well as experience in computer science and AI technology.

Google has rolled out a mental illness screening tool via its search engine, recognizing that its search engine is one of the many ways that people use to learn more about their health.

Virtual Reality (VR) technology is jumping on the band wagon as well. VR’s immersive environments have interested psychologists for a long time and for one reason- helping people with PTSD, anxiety disorders, and phobias. Exposing people what they fear in a “safe” space, could advance therapy, and help cut costs for people who are unable to afford different types of care.

There is no industry standard for evaluating mental health apps. Most apps do no have peer-reviewed research, and it is unlikely that every app will go through a randomized, controlled research to test effectiveness. One major reason is that testing is a slow process and technology evolves quickly. Also, by the time testing is done, the app may be outdated. Despite this outlook, there are still some tips in choosing a therapeutic mobile app that is effective for you. These tips include:

  • Asking a trusted health professional for a recommendation.
  • Check to see if an app offers recommendations for what to do if your symptoms get worst.
  • Search information on the app developer. Are you able to find information on his or her credentials?
  • Search Pub Med database offered by the National Library of Medicine. The resource contains a wide range of research topics including mental health apps.
  • If there is no information about a particular app, check to see if its based on a treatment that’s been tested. An example is that research has shown that internet cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is as effective as conventional CBT for disorders that respond well to CBT, like depression, anxiety, social phobia, and panic disorder.
  • Try it: If there is app that you’re interested in, try it for a few days to see if suits your needs.

Mental health care doesn’t need to be stuck in the traditional ways for it to work, and app developers and companies are showing they are able to integrate for today’s modern society.

Research:

ABC2News

Bustle

National Institute of Mental Health

Psych News