Several emerging technologies have the potential to offer insights into the mental health and well-being of individuals. They can provide flexible and tailored mental health support to improve engagement, care delivery, and health outcomes and can lower barriers to accessing mental healthcare.
Some mental health technologies, such as wearables and apps, can improve the assessment, monitoring, and management of commonly experienced mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, self-harm behaviors, suicidal thoughts, fear, stress, and issues associated with social isolation, particularly when there is a shortage of workforce and resources and a high demand for mental health services.
They can potentially increase the number of available treatment options while also improving individuals’ and communities’ health and well-being. According to studies, there has been an increase in the demand for technological forms of mental health support in recent years. During COVID-19, the number of people searching for mental health apps in the UK increased significantly. This post provides examples of emerging technologies that may become commonplace.
Chatbots and m-health apps
Smartphone apps can provide flexible support tailored to individuals’ lifestyles and needs. Some apps are intended to improve well-being by incorporating meditation, self-help exercises, and mood-tracking techniques. Others employ artificial intelligence (AI) to run a chatbot and simulate conversations with users to provide assessments and recommendations to improve well-being.
Some apps aim to provide clinical support to people suffering from mental illnesses. While apps for treating mild depression and anxiety have received special attention, apps for treating severe conditions have also been developed.
These are typically based on principles derived from established therapeutic methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and relaxation training. Some CBT-based apps, for example, teach people how to manage depression by encouraging them to track symptom severity over time and keep a thought diary.
Data collection outside clinical settings is critical for gaining insights into individual and population behavior and mental health. Fortunately, smartphones, wearables, and other sensor-equipped devices provide a wealth of physiological and behavioral data. Researchers have been able to monitor treatment adherence and response in psychiatric patients by monitoring changes in location, phone interactions, and physiological measurements to prevent relapses. Analyzing social media content can also reveal information about users’ mental health. Facebook has created an algorithm to detect posts from people who are suicidal or self-harming.
With advances in AI and computer science, it may be possible to predict people’s mental health using digital data. Machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) techniques may be used to predict people’s likelihood of developing a mental health condition or clinical outcomes. The Alan Turing Institute is looking into whether NLP analysis of transcribed speech can help predict who is likely to develop psychosis in a population of at-risk people. When combined with other data, the collection of speech data via personal devices could assist clinicians in tracking the progression of the disease over time.
Researchers have been studying virtual reality (VR) to treat conditions such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder for the past two decades (PTSD). Experimentation has recently focused on developing fully automated forms of support that can be delivered without the involvement of human therapists. As part of the gameChange clinical trial, a new automated VR therapy that targets social anxiety in patients with psychosis is currently being tested in several NHS Trusts.
Immersive technology is also beginning to play a role in promoting mental well-being as it becomes more affordable. Meditation games help players develop various skills for dealing with stress and anxiety. Deep, a meditative game, immerses users in an underwater world that can be controlled using diaphragmatic breathing and a breath belt. The goal is to teach players long-term meditative breathing and emotion regulation skills to help them manage stress and anxiety while improving mood and relaxation.
Previously, only clinicians and researchers had access to brain recording and stimulation devices. Consumers can now buy these tools directly from manufacturers, who claim they can improve well-being, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve mood. Wearing a portable electroencephalography (EEG) device during meditation, for example, allows electrical activity in the brain to be recorded and transferred to a smartphone app, where it is immediately translated into a sensory signal. During meditation, users are guided by this real-time sensory feedback.
Other neurotechnology devices are being marketed to treat psychiatric and psychological disorders. For example, a wearable transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) device can be used in conjunction with psychological therapy delivered via an app to alleviate depression symptoms. A previous Nuffield Council report addressed the ethical concerns raised by novel neurotechnologies.