April 27, 2022

Advancing Mental Health Through Tech

Man on phone at window

Technology on the cutting-edge of mental wellness

As our spring semester comes to a close and we prepare to launch headfirst into our jam-packed summer offerings, we at TCS think it’s the perfect time to take a breath and create a pocket of space in May to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month. The American Psychological Association reports that, while 87% of American adults don’t believe mental health struggles are anything to be ashamed of, 86% feel a stigma is attached to the phrase “mental illness.” This creates quite a paralyzing contradiction, with many Americans sincerely believing that mental health should be openly discussed and sympathizing with others who open up about their mental health — yet hesitating to seek treatment for themselves.

Enter technology. The past few years have seen a multitude of innovations that harnessed the power of tech to make mental health treatment more accessible, more private, more affordable, and more sophisticated, lowering the barrier of entry for those who struggle with mental wellness but feel embarrassed or overwhelmed when it comes to seeking help. Here are six tech innovations that promise to change – or already have changed — the face of mental health care.

Prescription video games

Until recently, the only FDA-approved treatments for kids diagnosed with ADHD consisted of behavioral therapy, educational programs, and medication. In 2020, that changed. EndeavorRx will go down in history as the first therapeutic video game that can legally be marketed as medicine in the US. EndeavorRx, a non-drug treatment option for children ages 8–12 years old who have been diagnosed with certain types of ADHD, has found a way to make treatment fun, accessible, and virtual, which is a game-changer for the mental health industry. Though the new treatment isn’t meant to replace medication, it’s a promising new development for those suffering from ADHD. The video game can be played at home, allowing kids to avoid intimidating office visits. Also, because kids generally love playing games, EndeavorRx can improve treatment compliance, which can be a significant problem with young people. Most exciting of all, EndeavorRx can help children feel more involved with their care, which can strengthen positive outcomes.

AI-assisted therapy

AI-assisted therapy has advanced rapidly in the past few years — and these advancements are bringing mental health care to people who need it. Notable examples of AI therapy tools include AI chatbots like Woebot and Wysa (which we featured in our Women’s History Month blog!) that can help patients practice CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) strategies and manage their symptoms between appointments. Smartphone apps like Ellipsis can analyze a patient's speech patterns for signs of emotional distress. These tools won't replace a human counselor; they're more like an assistant who's available 24/7 to support the patient and alert the provider when an intervention is needed. And they haven’t developed a moment too soon: according to recent data, mental health is the single most expensive part of our healthcare system. Because of the cost of treatment — not to mention a shortage of therapists and the aforementioned stigma associated with mental illness — many individuals struggling with their mental wellness don’t receive timely care. Not only is AI-assisted therapy a fraction of the cost of face-to-face treatment, it also provides a discreet option for those hesitant to seek care.

VR therapy

Academics have studied virtual reality’s potential to treat anxiety disorders since the ’90s, but in recent years, as the technology has improved and headshots have become more affordable, the practice has gathered momentum. Now, VR is being used to successfully treat a variety of conditions, including phobias, PTSD, and anxiety. Children with ADHD can practice focusing in a VR classroom. People with autism can practice navigating stressful social situations like job interviews. People with PTSD can immerse themselves in once-traumatic memories — by surviving the virtual encounter, they become desensitized to the memories that once plagued tem and prove to themselves that their thoughts are safe. While VR treatments aren’t substantially more effective than traditional therapy, they are often more convenient — and the cutting-edge technology allows for a level of immersion in scenes that might be hard to replicate in the real world.

Digital pills

Imagine a pill that includes a digital sensor — when you ingest the pill, it collects data on your body’s levels of certain chemicals and allows your doctor to monitor your compliance with the agreed-upon medication regimens in real time. It may sound like an idea out of a far-fetched sci fi novel, but believe it or not, the first digital pill was FDA-approved in 2017. This is a major breakthrough for patients with certain mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, for whom missing a medication (or taking it improperly) can have serious consequences. And with only about 25-50% of patients correctly taking their medications worldwide, digital pills could potentially prevent serious outcomes by helping providers ensure that patients take their meds as prescribed.

Digital symptom tracking

Tracking mental health symptoms manually is time-consuming and inefficient — by collecting symptoms only at in-person visits, key information can get lost in the shuffle. And many manual health records aren’t optimized for data analysis, making it difficult for doctors to analyze symptoms as they wax and wane. But with digital symptom tracking, doctors and patients can work together to track and understand vital symptoms between appointments. With brief remote daily check-ins, mediated by a digital symptom tracker and acting as a bridge between appointments, doctors can spot emerging problems before they require serious intervention. Even better, digital symptom trackers from companies like Symple include AI algorithms that identify patterns  and alert providers in real time of any warning signs — a crucial step towards optimizing mental health care for the future.

Mental health apps

For those who want to address their mental health but feel nervous about doing so in-person, there is now a bounty of intuitive apps designed to streamline and personalize your mental health journey. Apps like Talkspace, Calm, Moodfit, and Shine (which we also featured in our Women’s History Month blog!) allow you to search for therapists & treatments while remaining anonymous and offer a number of ways to manage your mental wellness — daily reminders, mood trackers, and tons of informative reading material. These apps, while not a replacement for a licensed therapist, can be great tools to help you take ownership of your day-to-day mental health.

We’ve only begun to harness tech’s potential to improve our mental and emotional wellness. At The Coding Space, we love the opportunity that Mental Health Awareness Month offers to survey all of the most hopeful advancements that tech is making in the realm of mental health.