Tackling mental health with technology

Mental health has become a universal problem: With one in four adults and one in ten children are likely to have a mental health problem in any year, it’s a problem worth solving. Not only are many mental illnesses not recognised or adequately treated, they tend to worsen during recessions or periods of economic crisis, which is precisely when governments and other funding agencies are looking to reduce spending rather than increase it. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. 

The UK is no exception: while suicide remains one of the biggest killers, nearly one in four young people seeking professional treatment for mental health are being turned away by UK medical services, according to a new report from the Education Policy Institute’s Independent Mental Health Commission. Meanwhile, for those who are fortunate enough to be referred by the GP to a mental health specialist, they are facing wait times of up to 18 weeks for an appointment.

Choose your doctor on the internet

Digital healthcare is forming a large part of the solution. Around the world, we continue to see people using online marketplaces to access healthcare services, as a more accessible and convenient alternative. Well-established players like $1.8 billion dollar company ZocDoc in the US, or DocPlanner in continental Europe and Latin America (expected to become the next European unicorn in the digital health arena), are enabling patients to book an appointment with private specialists with almost immediate availability - a good example of how to offer a more agile service with the same resources.

Marketplaces connecting doctors and patients are just the beginning. The market for digital health is huge, encompassing tools and solutions that cater to just about every possible need. We’re seeing an increasing trend in video consultations, which allow a patient to arrange a virtual meeting with a specialist without having to leave the comfort of his or her own home. For many mental health patients, who may not feel comfortable having face-to-face appointments about sensitive issues, this has come as a saving grace. Telemedicine is also being used in the public healthcare system in Canada, in order to address some of the issues currently facing the mental healthcare system, such as the shortage of psychiatrists and lack of services available in rural areas.

Try a self-help app

New, free-to-use apps on the market that offer patients the chance to tackle mental health issues on their own are rapidly growing in popularity. The British endeavour, myhealthapps, is a good starting point: it classifies and provides details of different health apps recommended by patient groups and tested by professionals. They currently have 93 apps included in their mental health section, and can recommend the one most tailored to your needs.

What lies ahead for technology in mental health?

Watson’s IBM recently introduced an online service for developers of Tone Analyzer that can read ‘emotional sentiment’ in text. Innovations like this could have a dramatic impact on how we tackle the mental health problem and, even though we’re still learning the full impact and capabilities of artificial intelligence, if any sector is ripe for such disruption - it’s health and well-being.

We want to come closer to reducing the stigma that still surrounds mental health, and the only way we will do this is by encouraging more people to speak out and seek help. Technology is a crucial part of the solution, by developing digital solutions that make it as easy as possible for people to seek treatment with the right professional, when and where they need it.

Dr. Frederic Llordachs, co-founder, Doctoralia
Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy