Now, entrepreneurs and innovators are turning their sights on mental health, hoping to transform the way we treat our minds just as technology has changed how we treat our bodies.
The potential market is huge: One in five Canadians experience mental illness in any given year, and more than half do over their lifetime—but less than half of them seek help, according to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
“There’s a dire need to offset the burden of mental health,” said Dr. Ajmal Razmy, who heads the acute mental health program at the three Trillium Health Partners hospitals in the Toronto area.
New apps such as Headspace, which offers directed meditation from a former Buddhist monk, and Talkspace, which offers psychotherapy by video and text chat, aim to ease that burden.
BEACON provides greater access to mental health care via its technology platform. It provides Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a psychotherapy approach that helps develop skills to change negative and anxious thinking. A user is matched with a dedicated therapist (not a bot) that will provide a customized care plan, digitally, at a much reduced cost to traditional in-person sessions that are also time-consuming.
Razmy said such consumer-focused care is a necessity when it can take months to see a psychiatrist.
“If you make an appointment and you’re waiting nine months or a year to see somebody, that crisis is gone and a new one might be there,” he said. “The apps are needed in terms of having that accessibility bridge for our patients.”
Like the Apple Watch and its ECG, he said, apps and devices that track mood and sleep habits are key to a new model that empowers patients in their discussions with doctors.
One app doing just this is Stigma – an automatic mood tracking and journaling tool. Inspired by the founder’s own personal struggle with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, Stigma helps you build a support network, journal your feelings, and track your moods.
And while mental health apps show great promise, proper oversight and professional consultation are still a necessity. Apple had to submit its Watch and ECG design through the FDA certification process for a medical device—no easy feat. Mental health apps, on the other hand, are unregulated.
Razmy cautioned that even the Apple Watch is still only a device for data collection, and consumers need to know that data isn’t a diagnosis.
“An ECG on its own doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “But if it means you can talk about these things a little more meaningfully with your provider, I think it’s a win for both sides.”
The rise of social media has given Canadians a new awareness about mental health, with people more willing to share their emotional experiences. Celebrities too have embraced advocacy: Olympic rower Silken Laumann has spoken out against the stigma around mental health, and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles spoke frankly about self-doubt following his team’s NFL championship victory.
The spread of smartphones has also helped improve awareness—after all, phone addiction is now a common problem.
Professor Carolyn McGregor, Canada Research Chair in Health Informatics at University of Ontario Institute of Technology, said it’s possible to use the addictive nature of mobile apps for good.
She’s working on apps that build resiliency—allowing people to concentrate, centre themselves and perform tasks under stress. Her research focuses on firefighters and front-line military personnel, the kinds of people that need to maintain focus and calm in the face of danger.
“We’re trying to use that interaction mechanism to create space for mental health, for self-reflection,” she said.
And mental-health apps have the same problems as running apps or the Bowflex in your basement: sticking to it. In May 2018, Statista counted nearly 48,000 health/fitness focused apps available in the Apple App Store, most of which are discarded after just one use.
There is hope: “If people can maintain a habit for three weeks, that’s enough for a long-term change,” McGregor said.
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