By Dariya Lopukhina, content director, Anadea.
Mental health affects everyone at some point in our lives. A commonly quoted statistic in the UK is that one in four people suffer the impact of mental ill health. In the U.S., 80 percent of workers experience stress at some point every day, and anxiety and depression cost the world $1 trillion in lost productivity annually.
Once taboo, mental health is talked about more frequently and openly than ever before. From Hollywood celebrities to the British royal family, the impact and treatment for the global mental health crisis we are currently living through is rarely out of the news.
Young men, in particular, are being encouraged to talk more openly. Poor mental health, when it goes unchecked, can have a serious impact on overall well-being, physical health, relationships, work, productivity, absenteeism, money, and it can result in suicide. In the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45.
As a result, governments and healthcare providers need to find new ways to deliver mental health services. Digital healthcare solutions, including smartphone apps, are some of the most common ways to support those who need and want to access more help and support.
Medtech supporting mental health
Traditional mental health support is delivered one of several ways. Doctors and healthcare providers are often a primary contact point for anyone wanting a referral. In some countries, such as the UK, these referrals move patients onto mental health service providers. Or they can self-refer, and wait around 6 to 8 weeks for treatment.
For more serious cases, there are mental health trauma centers, alongside mental health charities, such as Samaritans. No one should ever have to go without support when they’re in emotional distress. Thankfully, these services have always operated 24/7. The challenge is that mental health services are overwhelmed; they’ve never received anywhere near as much funding or attention as physical health services, and in many cases, there are clear links between the impact of mental health on our physical health.
Can medtech services and mental health apps bridge this gap?
Only a percentage of people who need help actively get it. Stigma is one of several things preventing everyone who needs it getting treatment. Due to mental or physical problems, not everyone who needs help is mobile enough to get out of the house. In other cases, people can’t afford private therapy and may not feel adequately supported by state or insurer-funded treatments.
There are hundreds – if not thousands – of apps that fall into the mental health category. However, potential users should be aware that most of these aren’t supported by peer-reviewed research. Similar to using an app to track running and physical fitness, using a mental health app is often self-managed and should play a role alongside other activities.
Mental health apps can fill a gap where other services aren’t able to provide support. Or where someone isn’t ready or able to get support from a doctor or therapist.
Sal Raichbach, PsyD, LCSW says that, “These apps are a safe space for individuals who may be too ashamed to admit their mental health issues in person or who may feel that they will be negatively labeled or stigmatized by others. This private method allows these individuals to have that sense of separation that they need while still being able to find the answers to their questions all within the comfort of their own homes.”
Mental health apps in the context of treatment
Most therapists and healthcare providers don’t think mental health apps are going to replace traditional treatment any time soon. Apps such as Calm, although hugely popular — with people suggesting it will be the first $1 billion mental health startup – aren’t a replacement for sessions with a therapist.
As Jean Otto, PhD, a psychologist in California, notes, “The work that is done in therapy requires vulnerability and exposure on the part of the patient, in the presence of another person, followed by an emphatic connection to promote change and acceptance.”
You can’t replace a trained therapist with an app. However, you can make it easier to monitor behaviors and implement changes using an app. And there are apps for everything from monitoring moods to monitoring addictions (e.g. smoking, drinking, drugs) — and managing anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, even self-assessment support for those with PTSD.
Apps can benefit from integration with other services. With the right API integrations, an app can inform a therapist how often someone has used social media apps, gone for a walk, or made calls or texts. All of this third-party data — with the patients’ permission — can provide invaluable insight into someone’s peace of mind and mental well-being.
Businesses are equally keen to take mental health more seriously. One such app providing mental health coaching services is Ginger, delivering 24/7 “on-demand behavioral health system that includes emotional-health coaching, teletherapy and telepsychiatry.”
Although many of the apps mentioned are third-party platforms, unsupported by peer-review research, healthcare providers are clearly looking at ways of implementing similar services with the support patients need from professionals. More digital therapies, such as CBT, are being delivered using online and app-based courses, alongside interactive preventative treatments designed to reduce the number of people getting preventable diabetes.
With the right support and innovative ideas, patients can get the help they need. Smartphones have played a role in negatively impacting our mental health. Now they can and will play a role in improving the mental health of millions across the world.