Tech Health

Mental health tech is no gimmick. It could change everything for patients.

Call To Wellbeing — Apr 2022

How can mental health treatment and research get to hard-to-reach patients? Technology may have the answer – from your phone to inside your brain.

If you follow the news, you’d be forgiven for thinking technology is all bad for mental health. Blue light from screens can prevent sleep, gaming is officially addictive and there’s a link between social media use and depression symptoms.

But researchers are also using tech to help address some of the hardest problems in mental health. It could make treatment more effective and affordable, and include more hard-to-reach patients.

Some creative uses of tech in mental health care, include:

  • Data-collecting sensors that pretend to be brain neurons
    The faux neuron senses how and when each neuron fires and how circuits communicate, sending data back to researchers. The information could help treat depression, schizophrenia and brain damage.

  • An implant that could stimulate the brain back to health
    The US military’s research arm, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA,) is funding trials of brain implants that use algorithms to detect brain patterns in mood disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD,) borderline personality disorder and major depression. The implants can also stimulate the brain in the hope of regaining a healthy state.

  • Virtual reality for social anxiety
    The way virtual reality (VR) places the user at the heart of a simulated scenario is useful in treating anxiety disorders with exposure therapy. The therapy involves progressively exposing a patient to their fear while the patient curtails their usual response, gradually reducing their association between the stimulus and panic.

  • Gaming sparks recovery for teenagers
    Games engage players in a story, letting them affect the outcome by experimenting and gaining skill. Single-player games emphasize improving performance against yourself, rather than others. Despite the obvious potential, Games for Health Journal reports few games have been developed and studied specifically for psychiatric use, but notes encouraging trial results.

  • Research by app, treatment by app
    Dr. Patricia Areán is Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at University of Washington. She conducted a pioneering randomized, controlled study using smartphone apps that delivered mental health treatments and measured results. Recruiting for the study using online ads helped reach a large number of potential participants, including people from communities normally hard to reach, like ethnic minorities and people in rural areas.

The future of technology in mental health care

Are we approaching a time when doctors prescribe implants, games or VR to treat mental ill-health, rather than medication or talking therapies? Well, not exactly. But many of these technologies have clear benefits, like addressing treatment-resistant mental illness, reducing treatment costs and avoiding medication side effects and risks.

Read the full article, here.