New Tech Tools for Mental Health

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Mental illness is not uncommon: 1 in 5 Americans suffers from a mental-health issue in almost any given year. And if left untreated, it can be deadly. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds and the 10th leading cause of death overall.

Yet for a lot of, help remains elusive. Based on the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), some 60 percent of adults struggling with mental illness didn't receive treatment in the past year. Many Americans can’t easily access a mental-health provider because of insurance-coverage limitations, geography (there’s lack of providers in rural areas), or scheduling availability. Others may hesitate to find professional help because of the stigma still surrounding mental illness.

Fortunately, technology is closing that gap. From digital spins on familiar formats to cutting-edge tools pushing mental health into new frontiers, a variety of services are improving access while helping people monitor symptoms and remain accountable to goals.

Here’s a glance at some of the latest innovations — along with the limitations — at the burgeoning intersection between tech and mental-health care.

Expert Access From Anywhere

Simply getting to a provider’s office remains one of the greatest barriers to mental-health care.

One emerging solution is telehealth — ultra-secure videoconferencing that essentially transposes in-person psychiatry or therapy sessions onto a computer screen. Telehealth is a game-changer in rural areas, where residents may live hours from a mental-health professional.

Insurance coverage varies, however, from plan to plan, state to state, and even plan to service (some insurers will cover only psychiatric services, whereas psychotherapy remains bound to the in-person model). Although this may change in time, if you’re seeking video-enabled mental-health services, seek advice from your plan first.

Acute support services will also be getting a digital makeover. While crisis hotlines aren't anything new — the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline turns 15 in 2021 — digital iterations from the model are emerging. Crisis Text Line enables individuals in crisis (that the line defines as “any painful emotion that you need support”) to text an experienced counselor at any time. Many of its counselors are volunteers instead of professionals, which means users get practical support instead of full-blown psychotherapy.

For those who aren’t in crisis but nonetheless need off-hours support, services like Text4Mood help bridge the gap. Subscribers receive daily “text support” messages from mental-health professionals. The messages offer general guidance instead of personalized solutions (a sample text: “Anger could be empowering when it’s properly channeled; utilize it as an ally in your recovery”), however the advice is effective nonetheless: Inside a survey of subscribers, 83 percent reported that the service boosted their overall mental well-being. Though Text4Mood happens to be available only in Canada, the continuing rise of text-based treatment options suggests we might soon see a similar service in the United States.

It Takes a (Digital) Village

Support groups have always been a popular form of treatment largely simply because they promote what’s known as universality: very good that we are not alone in our struggles.

Digital support groups not only facilitate that sense of connection and community; the newest iterations also offer anywhere, anytime features as well as expert advice — all from a computer or phone screen.

Meru Health’s digital clinic is made to address depression, anxiety, and other common mental-health concerns. It marries peer support — members are able to elicit feedback, swap tips, and provide guidance to other members, all anonymously — with evidence-based mental-health protocols such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (or CBT) and mindfulness. Experts are also available for more intensive, individualized support: Through the program, participants have telephone access to licensed mental-health professionals.

Billed as “The World’s Most widely used Mobile Sober Community,” the Sober Grid app not just connects users with others in recovery, it provides a range of advanced tools including geosocial networking capabilities that enable them to meet up with other abstainers wherever they're going. Sober Grid even includes a Burning Desire button that connects members with immediate support when they’re feeling at a loss for the urge to use.

Wearable Support

Wearable technologies designed to help fitness-minded folks track their calorie consumption or step count have boomed previously decade. A growing number of wearable tools  are empowering individuals with mental-health concerns to follow suit.

After all, mental illness manifests through the whole body: When we’re anxious, our heartbeat increases; when we’re depressed, we quite often sleep too much or not enough. While plenty of devices track biomarkers like sleep and heartbeat, the newest crop go one step further by translating biometric data into real-time advice.

The Feel wristband uses biosensors to capture variability in heart rate and breathing patterns in addition to skin temperature and conductance — all key indicators of emotional distress. Proprietary algorithms synthesize the information, generating insights into the wearer’s emotional well-being. The tool then sends real-time, cognitive-behavioral-theory–based recommendations using a mobile app.

Spire Health offers a thumb-size “health tag” users attach to their clothes. The tag’s sensory technology collects data on sleep, respiration, heartbeat, and physical activity. It then notifies wearers when their biometrics indicate a necessity to slow down (“You seem tense at this time; try relaxing your shoulders”), increase (“Poor sleep last night; how about a workout today to get better sleep tonight?”) — or just take a few deep breaths.

Other innovations give a more literal form of relief. Touchpoints for Calm, a wearable wristband, emits microcurrents purported to relieve stress within seconds. Unlike other wearables, Touchpoints doesn’t track any biometrics or alert the consumer when stress markers are elevated; instead, the person activates the device in moments of need.

A Digital Future?

In an area still struggling to deliver affordable and accessible services, digital mental-health solutions may literally save lives.

There are also pragmatic perks in the “anytime access” model. Sustaining improvements in mental health requires actually applying skills in daily life. Online and mobile mental-health tools can help individuals keep track of their progress and grow accountable to their goals outside the therapist’s office.

Yet it seems doubtful that we'll ever fully outsource our psychological well-being to a website. Human problems still benefit from human support, which explains why studies consistently reveal that the relationship between therapist and client, referred to as therapeutic alliance, can have as much of an impact on outcomes as a therapist’s specific skills or techniques — or even more impact. After all, many people seek help for problems that are relational in nature. Skilled mental-health professionals make use of the therapeutic alliance to better understand (as well as in time, point out) how the client relates with other people, using in-session behaviors as evidence.

Quality control is also a concern. A 2021 review of apps made to address bipolar disorder concluded that few followed industry best-practice guidelines or cited sources of information used in their psychoeducation material. Moreover, less than a quarter of the apps included a privacy policy — and not surprisingly, the question of methods user data will be stored and guarded looms large over the mental-health-technologies sector.

For now, the intersection of technology and mental health may be best understood as an opportunity to augment rather than replace in-person support. We may never feel completely comfortable spilling our guts to an AI therapist, but integrating digital tools into the panorama of mental-health treatments could be key to ensuring that everyone can access help when times get tough.

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