Mental health is an issue that is gaining increasing relevance, as associated disorders – such as anxiety and depression – are found to be on the rise globally. Worryingly, these also involve young people and children to a significant extent. As little progress has been made in the development of new medicines and treatments in the past decade, experts in the field are looking to digital technology as a valuable resource to help counter and prevent this trend.
According to data provided by the US National Intelligence Council in a report (March 2021), it appears that mental health disorders have grown by 13 percent during the past decade, and that currently between 10 and 20 percent of children and adolescents globally are affected. As a result, suicide is the third major cause of death among people aged 15 to 19. This is a growing phenomenon, to the extent that health experts estimate that the annual expenditures on treating mental illness could exceed US$6 trillion by 2030.
Predictions by the World Health Organization (WHO) support this future outlook. In fact, the WHO believes that by 2030, mental health conditions will be the leading public health burden globally, fomented by the failure of mental health services to be able to understand and intervene early enough to provide patients with appropriate care. According to the WHO, technology and innovation could make up for shortfalls in these areas.
In the wake of these considerations, healthcare providers, tech providers, and disruptive innovation companies have already begun to work independently or in collaboration with a wide range of public and private actors – governments, insurance entities, research centers, and universities – to enhance and further develop digital technologies to address different types of mental disorders while increasing the scalability, affordability, and accessibility of the global mental health system for afflicted patients.
Mobile applications – passive symptom tracking
A lot of effort is going into the development of mobile apps that can assist and monitor mentally ill patients at different stages of their condition. For example, researchers are currently exploring methods to enhance mobile applications for passive symptom tracking. Through sensors inside smartphones, these apps can record movement patterns, social interactions, and collect other data relevant to behavior analysis, such as tone of voice, speed of speech, and more.
By cross-referencing this data, the app is able to identify significant behavioral changes that could be indicators of upcoming episodes of mania, depression, or psychosis. This makes it possible to alert mental health professionals early on, allowing them to intervene before these episodes occur.
To date, the analytical capacity of these apps is still relatively limited, but the goal of enhancement is to make them capable of greater accuracy in analyzing behavioral data, with the ultimate goal of being able to manage even patients with more acute disorders.
Virtual Reality – Supporting doctor-patient communication and therapies
In the past two years, there has been a growing interest in the development of virtual reality as a way of supporting therapies to enhance mental health. Worldwide, researchers are studying the benefits of VR from different perspectives, ranging from increased patient engagement to the possibility for the mental health professional to be more in close contact with severe cases, to actual therapeutic applications.
Regarding greater involvement, research on VR-based solutions conducted in 2021 (Dilguel et al.) showed that Virtual Reality Group Therapies (VRGTs) stimulate patients to interact more with each other and with the therapist, and to be more participatory and honest in sharing, leading to greater group cohesion overall. This is due to the virtual environment and especially the anonymity provided by the avatars, which allow greater openness for patients who have difficulty talking freely about their disorder.
From the mental health professional’s perspective, virtual reality can facilitate stronger connections with the patients, allowing them to be more closely followed. What’s more, it is a technology that lends itself well to various therapeutic models, including preventive ones, and can give greater access to mental health services even for patients who are unable – or reluctant – to reach out to the therapist in the physical world.
From the point of view of therapeutic outcomes, advances in the study of VR therapies involve more disorders such as pain management, phobias, and anxiety, while the treatment of depression, for the time being, is least addressed in the current literature. The focus of research is also primarily geared toward using VR technology for the development of therapies rather than as a tool for diagnosing mental health conditions.
What to expect in the near future?
Currently, much effort is still focused on researching the possible uses of VR to ensure accessibility, patient care, and effectiveness of virtual therapies. Moreover, the support provided by mobile applications has not yet reached the level of maturity where they can handle the analytical complexity required for effective and preventive management of mental health conditions. However, according to experts, VR technology will become increasingly popular and widespread in the future due to a gradual reduction in costs and an increase in the quality of VR headsets. This will have a positive effect on the progressive development and testing of VR interventions to support mental health.
The digital approach to mental health as a whole has the potential to be implemented in a multitude of different regional and cultural settings and thus achieve a generalization of therapies that can reduce the burden of mental disorders globally.
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