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Mental health services have been called “the poor cousin” of physical health services in the UK, suffering decades of lower priority, weaker public policy and less NHS funding.

The good news is that equality of the two will be achieved by the year 2020, and one of the driving forces for this change looks set to be the impact of digital innovation.

Greater use of digital technology in mental health services is important because:

  • Demand is huge and growing: Health charity Mind claims one in four people in the UK experiences a mental health problem each year. The Mental Health Foundation estimates there will be two million more adults in the UK with mental health problems by 2030.
  • Need is going unmet: According to the LSE, 75% of people experiencing depression and anxiety access no treatment. 75% of children and young people with mental health problems don’t access any treatment either.
  • The costs are crippling: The Centre for Mental Health estimates the costs associated with mental health problems in England alone are £105 billion a year.

There has been a revolution in digital healthcare in general these past few years, driven by a host of new software applications that stand on the shoulders of unprecedented widespread mobile and broadband availability, and the maturity of sensor-based technologies. But it is the very nature of mental health services that could make it the greatest beneficiary of new digital approaches.

Mental health covers a wide spectrum of illnesses and conditions, but in general terms some of the key digital innovations set to benefit patients can be split into the following groups:

Self-help: helping patients help themselves

These are information-based tools that enable the user to receive important reminders and other prompts – such as remembering to take important medication – to assist their recovery or treatment. Another good example is Pacifica, designed to relieve stress and anxiety by having the user undertake exercises based on meditation and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy whenever necessary. Such tools are typically available to download on any smartphone, while other more specialised apps are properly integrated with clinical care pathways and providers.

Peer and specialist support: because better connectedness means better patient outcomes

Isolation and stigmatisation are hugely damaging to patient outcomes in mental health, but there are plenty of examples where the ‘social’ attributes of digital technology are being applied to negate this, reducing instances of self-harm and increasing successful suicide interventions. Organisations such as the Veterans Health Administration (USA) for former military personnel use these kinds of tools as part of a wide range of digital initiatives targeting veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illness. Elsewhere Pala-linq is a tool that majors on keeping alcohol and drug addiction sufferers connected with their support networks to prevent relapses.

Monitoring: the vital statistics that inform short and long term treatment and recovery

Real-time monitoring of health metrics – FitBit style – is one of the most common and accessible digital healthcare innovations, made possible by a new generation of lightweight, wearable sensors. The autonomy of these systems is particularly valuable for mental health patients whose illness makes it difficult for them to consciously input their own data into companion apps. Similarly, as many mental illness sufferers experiencing problems with their sleep. This technology is incredibly valuable not only in identifying long-term trends, but also for highlighting rapidly developing crises.

Wearable treatment: new digital advances in autonomous treatment

Progressing one stage further than monitoring sensors is the potential for therapeutic wearables with the ability to treat patients remotely through neurostimulation. Examples of this technology – such as the Fisher Wallace Stimulator – have received FDA approval and are showing remarkable results in pilot studies. With short periods of treatment carefully prescribed and monitored remotely by medical professionals, the vision is for mental health patients to wear a headband-like device that stimulates the brain to produce natural hormones such as dopamine and serotonin that help combat the symptoms of bipolar depression and other illnesses.

As with physical medicine, the challenge of mental health is as much about affordability and sustainability of services as it is about finding new treatments. Gladly, digital technology promises the best of both worlds.

Digital technology in mental health services means medical professionals and patients can improve outcomes, and reduce the delays and risks associated with traditional healthcare approaches. With rising need and the demand for better care quality, we believe digital can deliver this without adding significantly to the costs of delivering services.