As the world recovers from the pandemic and lockdowns, mental health is becoming more relevant. The mental scars caused by months of enforced lockdowns are becoming more apparent even as economies slowly open up. Suicide rates and mental illnesses which spiked during the pandemic have not gone down.
More worryingly, it is middle and low-income countries that are suffering the most. As per last year’s statistics, more than 703,000 people take their own lives every year. 77% of these occur in low and middle-income countries. Africa, which is the hardest-hit region, is home to six of the 10 countries with the highest suicide rates worldwide
At this point calling mental health, a crisis is an understatement. Mental illnesses as it is today is a health emergency, and it needs to be treated as such. Considering that annual deaths are slowly approaching a million, mental illness is at par with some of the worst diseases affecting humankind worldwide.
Fortunately, more people are starting to realize the gravity of the matter and are giving it due attention. Institutions are starting to treat mental illness more seriously and the stigma surrounding mental illness is slowly starting to disappear.
However, it is via technology that real solutions are created. And even in this space, I am happy that a number of companies and startups are taking up the challenge and creating solutions to various problems surrounding mental illness.
Here are some of the most promising technologies in the mental health space.
In 2020 USA’s FDA approved the first video game that would be used as treatment. Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRX, formerly Project EVO, went down in history as the first video game that can legally be marketed and prescribed as medicine in the US.
Since then, a number of medical professionals and game developers have collaborated to build video games that have been very useful as treatments for mental illnesses.
‘Sea Hero Quest’, a VR game has been used to detect the early stages of dementia while ‘SnowWorld’ is used for pain management.
More importantly, these treatments are not only used for kids but also adults. At least those open enough to try a different form of treatment.
2. AI and Smartphone Assisted Therapy
One of the biggest issues facing mental health treatment is access. All over the world, there is an acute lack of access to psychiatrists. In Africa, for example, the region most affected by mental health fitness, there is only one psychiatrist for every 900,000 people.
Fortunately, there are technologies trying to cover this gap. With internet and smartphone penetration increasing rapidly across the globe companies are creating apps to provide much-needed services to remote patients.
AI-powered apps and chatbots like Woebot, Ellipsis and Woebot employ technologies such as voice recognition and responses for diagnosis and treatment. Voice recognition and speech patterns can for instance be used to analyze a patient’s voice and speech patterns for warning signs of emotional distress.
Of course, these tools cannot really replace a human counsellor and they shouldn’t. Human touch is necessary, especially during treatment. This is why companies such as YouMedico are providing much-needed access to health professionals via smartphone or a computer.
Teletherapy, which is a growing industry provides a lot of promise by combining different inputs from many modalities; AI informed signals, real-time symptom tracking and app usage. Each of these is geared to produce data that can help enrich treatment and improve patient outcomes.
3. VR for Mental Health
I have already mentioned how VR games such as ‘Sea Hero Quest’ are already in use for medical treatment. However, with recent advancements in VR and AI, innovative therapies can be created to have a far more reaching impact on mental health.
Research by health professionals has already suggested that VR can be used to treat anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and a whole list of phobias. VR games have already been proven to be successful in treating ADHD in children aged between 8 to 12 years.
VR has even proven to be useful in treating the surge in depression, anxiety and other mental issues experienced due to the pandemic.
4. Digital Symptoms Tracking
Tracking health mental health symptoms manually is another great challenge facing the industry. For many, it requires a visit to the doctor followed by extensive tests using tools and techniques that may not be readily available. Not to mention, many patients are very poor at tracking or even reporting to the doctor once these symptoms appear. These are mental illnesses after all.
Gadgets such as smartwatches can be very useful in this regard. With the capacity to record and transmit health vitals in real time these tools can literally save lives. More importantly, real-time data can be used for better diagnosis and therefore a more accurate treatment to delivered to patients no matter their geographical location.