Mental Health and Technology, a good fit?

The pandemic and the resulting mental strain have brought two unlikely allies to the forefront – mental health and technology. We say “unlikely” because when we think about the relationship between mental health and technology, we often tend to recall the negative effects that social media and smartphones have on our wellbeing. We don’t think of where and how technology can benefit mental healthcare.

Besides, compared to physical medicine, the mental healthcare sector has been relatively slow in its adoption of technology. Sure, mental health apps and technology-based diagnostic systems have existed for a while. 

But, in this time of need, with the pandemic and lockdown causing anxiety throughout the world, traditional mental health systems have failed to provide the help required. So, technology has stepped up, and the mainstream adoption of technology in mental health practice has begun.

So in this article, we explore some of the popular applications of technology in mental health practice, including online therapy, mental health apps, and some of the more advanced applications like artificial intelligence and virtual reality. We think mental health and technology are a good fit. 

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New innovations are helping diagnostic efforts

The issue of pinpointing the cause of various mental health issues has plagued researchers for decades. Mental disorders are caused by a complex interaction between biology and the environment, and psychologists are nowhere near finding exact causes behind the various illnesses. 

However, technology has helped develop brain scanning techniques like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which help identify chemical discrepancies in the brain. Such diagnostic measures, though incomplete, have helped in the preparation of psychiatric drugs to help treat the symptoms of various illnesses. 

Cutting-edge technologies like Artificial Intelligence  and Virtual Reality are being researched as methods to diagnose mental health issues. Artificial Intelligence can leverage data to monitor people’s mental health and notify doctors in case of any issues. 

Virtual reality is being explored as a method to simulate real-life experiences in the safe environment of the clinician’s office. This method will really help research as it will help replicate real-life scenarios in controlled environments. These technologies are a long way from being used widely in mental health settings, but they show immense potential as diagnostic tools.

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Chatbots and virtual reality are revolutionising mental healthcare

Advanced technologies like virtual reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) chat bots are also being explored as possible tools to help in the treatment of mental illness. Virtual reality is relatively new, but it has already shown positive results when treating patients with anxiety, phobias and post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD)

One application of VR treatment is in exposure therapy, where patients with anxiety are exposed to anxiety-inducing stimuli in the safe environment of the clinic. When patients experience these stimuli, without any negative consequences, they learn to let go of their anxiety. This helps them develop coping techniques under the guidance of the therapist.

Chat bots, on the other hand, help people by providing them with an alternative to in-person therapy. This is especially useful because the stigma surrounding mental illness and the shame associated with it often discourages people from seeking physical help. Chat bots provide a platform for such people to talk about what they are facing without fearing any judgements. In fact, there is evidence that people are much more comfortable disclosing personal details about their issues anonymously to a “virtual agent” or chat bot. 

The use of technology in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses is, of course, still in its early stages. Virtual Reality and AI chat bots have a long way to go before they can become mainstream. Techniques used to diagnose mental disorders like brain scanning, still lag far behind the tools used in the diagnosis of physical illnesses. 

Online therapy has its disadvantages, including the fact that body language, one of the key factors used by therapists to help their clients, is overlooked when it comes to online therapy. Therapy apps, though useful, have their disadvantages, too. The lack of active involvement of therapists in such apps is one of the major disadvantages. And both online therapy and mental health apps have privacy and security concerns that need to be addressed.

However, in spite of all this,  mental health and technology have begun a relationship that will hopefully bear fruits for years to come!

Online therapy is gaining popularity

When we think of therapy, we picture a cosy room with a couch, and sitting face-to-face with a therapist. But with the pandemic and the resulting lockdown, in-person visits to a therapist have become increasingly difficult. Enter online therapy. 

Websites like BetterHelp and Talkspace have come up, providing a range of communication methods including chat, call and video conferencing. Online Therapy does present some challenges, but there is a growing body of research which suggests that online therapy is useful in treating certain mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and panic disorder. Besides, with no other option available during a lock down, the pandemic situation has greatly increased the popularity of online therapy.

Mental health apps are making support accessible

With mobile apps available for every little thing we do these days, it is hardly surprising that mental health apps are a “thing”. In fact, with over 800 apps devoted to mental health, they’re much more than a trend. Most of these apps are focused on helping people with anxiety, depression or substance abuse disorders. A major advantage of these apps is that they allow people to seek help anonymously. This is especially helpful for people who are hesitant or uncomfortable with going to a therapist in person. 

Apps can also supplement traditional therapy by allowing practitioners to monitor their clients’ progress and adherence to treatment. The apps are useful for self-management (the user adds information like medications to be taken and the app provides feedback in the form of reminders), skill-training (which helps users learn new coping methods), and mental health support (where users can get online therapy).

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