How Digital Health Solutions Are Combating The Mental Health Pandemic
By Nayantara Bhat | Mental health issues have long concerned governments and health professionals, but awareness of their spread and how to tackle them remains low, especially in developing countries and low-income communities. An unexpected common denominator could offer the solution: technology, and social media in particular.
Social media has been both a help and a hindrance for those affected by mental health disorders. Some platforms are beneficial, but others have been pinpointed as the root of mental illnesses that plague many youth today.
Readers, particularly parents and teachers, may remember the year 2013, when a number of teen suicides were provoked by the social platform Ask.fm. The website, which allows users to ask and answer questions anonymously, became a place where cyberbullying ran rampant. Business Insider reported in September 2013 that nine teenagers in the United States and United Kingdom were driven to suicide by anonymous hate messages.
Orygen, Australia’s national service promoting mental wellbeing among the youth population, has become the authority on healthtech for mental disorders through their digital team, eOrygen. The Melbourne-based mental health research organization hopes a new take on social media can offer some reprieve for teenagers or adults who are suffering from common mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Orygen’s tech lead Dr Simon D’Alfonso is developing Moderated Online Social Therapy (MOST), a social media platform and research initiative that aims to discover how best to create engaging technology for young people with mental illnesses. Given that clinics are often strapped by limited time and resources, the platform also explores how technology use can reinforce the therapeutic techniques and recovery that comes from face-to-face therapy.
“The primary goal is to develop an evidence-based app that powers effective online psychosocial interventions,” says D’Alfonso. He adds that a real-life application of MOST would be to introduce the platform to mental health clinic patients to support their regular therapy sessions.
MOST consists of three elements: Facebook-style social networking, specialized therapy components that help users develop and reinforce psychological skills like self-compassion, and a forum-like feature where users can pose and crowdsource solutions to everyday mental health problems. Users work to develop a range of psychological skills and are asked to demonstrate their learnings in real-life scenarios. They can then seek support from the community or trained moderators.
The system is designed to create a constant back and forth between the patient’s therapy and social interactions as a means of reinforcing takeaways from their treatment. It also includes a ‘Job Zone’ with vocational opportunities and can be adapted to a variety of mental health disorders to maximize its reach.
“The specialized platform we have developed attempts to avoid some of the negative pitfalls of social media behemoths,” says D’Alfonso. In his words: “social media is a double-edged sword.”
Globally, declining mental health is reaching alarming rates. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression. A significant factor in the unchecked rise of depression and other disorders, which are endemic within marginalized communities, is the critical imbalance between the cases of mental illness and accessibility of treatment.
In Indonesia, an hour of therapy with a hospital’s resident psychologist costs around US$35 an hour, but according to The Jakarta Globe, the country’s minimum wage for 2018 is only US$230 per month. Paying for regular therapy sessions is for the most part unsustainable, even for white collar, middle-class residents.
The WHO estimates that 76% to 85% of sufferers in low- and middle-income countries do not receive treatment for their conditions. Access to scalable mental healthcare in Southeast Asia is likely to be a challenge because stigma towards mental illness is well-documented in these countries.
The accessibility of digital mental health treatments is heavily dependent on government resources and information systems. State provisions for mental health solutions are also likely to be skewed in favor of government-backed initiatives, with for-profit ventures left mainly fending for themselves.
Tech giants including Facebook, IBM, and Google’s parent company Alphabet are devoting resources towards developing solutions, but their entrance into the arena gives rise to separate concerns.
“Will [big tech’s] business models prioritize profitability at the expense of being available to all those in need, or will their efforts be philanthropically tempered?” asks D’Alfonso.
Since few scalable and deployable solutions are currently market-ready, attention, creativity, and investor dollars are all being directed at discovering new applications of technology within the mental healthcare space.
“The automation and analytical power afforded by computing technologies can offer unique functionalities and new tools, with the potential to radically transform mental healthcare,” says D’Alfonso.
He gives the example of ‘digital phenotyping,’ which uses smartphone usage patterns and sensor data to identify and even predict psychological disorders.
Digital phenotyping has attracted major commercial attention: Palo Alto-based startup MindStrong Health raised a US$15 million Series B for developing technology that treats disorders through “the ubiquity of mobile technology” (Crunchbase). Alphabet’s life science firm, Verily, is also working on this technology.
While the likes of Facebook and Alphabet are high profile role models, D’Alfonso says startups drive the bulk of digital healthcare development. The founders of these early-stage companies are often mental health professionals; for example, MindStrong’s three founders are all Doctors of Medicine.
However, the efficacy of tech-based mental healthcare applications is still a gray area, making testing and research all the more important.
“It seems many apps are capitalizing on this space without a theoretical or evidence-based approach,” says D’Alfonso. This puts users at risk of misdiagnosis or improper treatment, and at worst, exacerbates existing mental health issues.
D’Alfonso is optimistic but clear-eyed about MOST’s potential in tackling the mental health crisis. He believes that the platform and other similar applications will advance rather than replace the work of traditional clinics.
“I suspect that the future incorporation of digital mental health solutions into mental healthcare will result in clinical psychologists who are trained to use new digital technologies and interpret new types of patient data,” he says.
The picture D’Alfonso paints of the digital mental health field points to a greater understanding of mental illness and better care for those who suffer from it. Tech-based solutions could potentially transform the mental healthcare space, but only if given resources to grow.
Nayantara is Jumpstart’s Editorial Associate.