COLLABORATION

Why tech and academia need to collaborate on mental health

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By U2B Staff 

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Demand for mental health care is rising rapidly, requests for psychiatrists are hitting unprecedented levels, but there simply aren’t enough mental health professionals to meet the demand.

The United States is suffering from a dramatic shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health providers. The shortfall is particularly dire in rural regions, and less affluent urban neighbourhoods where the community health centres are struggling with treating the most severe mental illnesses.

A 2016 report released by the Health Resources and Services Administration projected the supply of workers in selected behavioural health professions to be approximately 250,000 workers short of the projected demand by 2025.

In light of the ever-growing waiting lists and lack of comprehensive care, people are increasingly reaching to their phones for the answer.

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In an editorial for VentureBeat, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Neha Chaudhary MD, said she receives questions from patients several times a week about how technology can help in their care.

Mental health apps have exploded in recent years with everything on offer from mindfulness apps, happiness apps, mood tracking apps, and reality-based games to help with addiction. The interest in mental health within the tech industry is evident and thriving.

This obvious awareness in the tech industry, paired with the struggling resources in the medical field, has led Chaudhary to make a plea – for academia and industry to enter into a relationship to tackle the growing problem, and to do so now.

Chaudhary believes the marrying of these two fields could be “the best match any medical field has yet seen.”

Knowledge exchange

Chaudhary believes the two fields can learn from each other’s experience to make a better product for everyone.

Unlike other medical fields, mental health can rarely rely on lab results and statistics, instead using qualitative rather than quantitative data in studies.

Subjective accounts can be hard to codify. But tech companies excel at this kind of problem-solving and may offer a solution that medics simply haven’t considered.

Likewise, tech companies are producing apps and games that don’t necessarily target the right problems, Chaudhary says. She believes coupling them with mental health academics could address both of these issues.

A global problem needs a global solution

According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

Given the lack of resources around the globe and a growing need for help, there is an opening for mental health providers to expand their reach digitally. With the prevalence of mobile phones across the planet, this offers a great opportunity to reach those people in need who are unable or too fearful to access help.

“Clinicians alone, practicing in the current one-at-a-time model, cannot meet the demand,” writes Chaudhary.

“We need tools that have the ability to scale to reach the people suffering in silence, and these need to be designed for maximal effectiveness.”

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Breaking down the stigma

Accessing help through technology allows academics to reach people where they are. While the stigma surrounding mental illness is slowly eroding in some societies, it is still difficult for many people to talk openly about their mental health.

For a lot of suffers, this can mean never seeking help in fear of rebuke from others or society as a whole.

Reaching people where they are enables experts to circumvent this barrier and provide the vital tools that could help a person manage.

As Chaudhary points out: “Many people with mental illness never step foot into a physician’s office. Most people do engage with technology.”

There may be barriers to developing an effective working relationship between the two sectors – differing goals, different cultures, and a lack of a common language between academia and industry.

But those hurdles are more than worth overcoming given the potential results, believes Chaudhary.

While tech can hold the key to access, it is crucial that it is done correctly, sensitively and effectively. Bringing academia into the equation ensures this happens. As Chaudhary says:

“Collaboration is critical.”