In the UK and beyond, technology is being used in increasingly varied, complex and creative ways to expand treatment for mental illnesses and broaden our understanding of them. Over the past year the United Kingdom, especially England, has successfully pushed mental health into the public consciousness. Like many developed countries, depression, anxiety and other common mental illnesses are responsible for a significant share of health and social problems among the population, especially the young population. According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 20-34 in the UK.
The country has taken steps to counter stigma around mental health and make discussion of mental illnesses mainstream. It has also worked to take advantage of digital resources to expand treatment. Through the National Health Service (NHS) service Healthy Minds, people can refer themselves for treatment through a website, access computerized cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that is supported over the phone, join group work, and access general resources. The focus is on talking therapies, but enabled by digital connection.
Further use of technology to expand treatment should be obvious. Wearables can allow people, patients and clinicians to track and monitor emotional and physical well-being, and digital communication tools can link people with 24/7 support, either online or at crisis centers. Communicating digitally also allows people to open up and seek help anonymously, which can be a critical step towards getting help at all.
On the other hand, the constant use of social media by young people, is commonly (and fairly) blamed for exacerbating mental health problems. Use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat put already vulnerable young people on an emotional roller coaster of endless pressure and scrutiny, exaggerating feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, anxiety and depression. But assuming social media is not going away, the culprit — a life constantly on display — might also be part of the solution.
The Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont, USA has used machine learning analysis of social media posts to develop algorithms that can accurately identify depression, and do so before diagnoses by mental health practitioners. Their method has outperformed practitioners at identifying previously undiagnosed depression. A recent study published last week in EPJ Data Science, found that Instagram photos also reveal predictive markers of depression. The researchers hope a similar model might prove useful conducting and enhancing mental health screenings.
Challenges and solutions become even more powerful the further we descend into the world of tech companies and their products. Within the tech industry, the predominantly male founders and employees are put under intense social and financial pressure to perform, and schedules are hyper-intense and hyper-competitive. Jane Powell, CEO of male suicide prevention charity CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably) has pointed out that while men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women, seeking help is still stigmatised.
Some tech entrepreneurs have tackled the problem themselves. Speaking with UK Tech, David Brudö agreed that mental health problems are pervasive “I’d say most of the founders I know are struggling with this one way or another. I recently met four founder friends who are all successful entrepreneurs and we concluded that four out of five, have been struggling with mental health conditions.” While struggling with his own mental health, Brudö rejected friends who told him to seek help but built the app Remente, which allow users to track their moods and set goals across their personal and professional lives. It is one of a growing number of apps to emerge from a tech industry beginning to look at its own challenges with mental health.
The world of gaming may be going farthest of all by using the immersive nature of games to both portray complicated mental illnesses and treat mental illnesses in new ways. Champions of the Shengha is a first of its kind emotionally responsive game. Played with a wearable sensor, the better a player is able to stay calm and control their emotions in real life the more powerful they are in the game. The game aims to train players in controlled breathing, which is effective at improving emotional self-control and calm and reducing stress and anxiety. It seems to work. In trials with players, three out of four reported improving their focus within the game and one out of four went on to use breathing techniques outside of the game. During play, over 80% of participants learned to adjust their heart rate variability through controlled breathing.
Finally, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice takes players into the mind of someone with a mental illness. The character is a classic sword-wielding fantasy heroine, but she hears voices. Tameem Antoniades, creative director, wrote that he realised computer games could be the perfect medium to depict what it is like to suffer from mental illness. “The idea was born that Hellblade would be a classic hero’s journey … but one where the fantasy world is a construct of Senua, the hero’s mind”. The idea was convincing enough to bring major charity the Wellcome Trust on board, as well as Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, who collaborated on the project.
In the world of emerging tech, explanations of AI often rely on analogies to the human brain: in deep learning, neural networks are applied to learning tasks that contain hidden layers, but discussion quickly becomes near impenetrable to a non-expert. However, getting at the hidden, impenetrable, and mysterious layers in our human minds is key to better treating, diagnosing and understanding mental illness. From digital communication to apps to gaming, tech might be one of our best hopes.