Facebook, Instagram and social media initially arrived as the darlings of a new age. All of a sudden people could share opinions, photos, videos and other forms of media from across the globe. Connections were made, friendships were built and a sudden boom in international connection fostered a global community. Despite this the spotlight is now starting to turn on another issue, what are these companies doing to our mental health? While research is still in progress, the creation of modern technology to deal with pre existing problems is the major drive of advancement in our world today. So if we can use tech to solve everything from friendship to travel, surely there’s a place for dealing with the eventual by products these advances cause. As waiting lists grow longer and our issues become more complex, a need for innovation around mental health is an apparent necessity.. With anxiety on the rise and pre existing solutions beginning to fail us what is the next tech solution for mental health? This is something we intend to explore.
The first exciting piece of advancement to discuss is the work of Oxford VR. In an attempt to tackle acrophobia (the fear of heights), they have been developing virtual reality technology which has shown immense benefits in early trials (an average 68% reduction in symptoms). This could play a big part in validating the move towards tech integration within the traditional therapist-client relationship. Though this technology has been built to provide a supplement to traditional therapy it doesn’t seem unfathomable that if combined with a virtual therapist using AI or other methods, it could replace the traditional model altogether. Along with the significant benefits for users, the gains for the industry are also worth considering. The ability to offer instant treatment or at least provide mental health professionals the ability to streamline their workflow (working from home or juggling clients) means that the shortage of available therapists may be stemmed or reduced by this smart tech. The sharp fall in the cost of the hardware required to run the software offers firms the capability to offer cost effective alternatives to traditional methods of dealing with phobias. Though the elimination of life altering phobias is a long stretch off we may be making our first steps in the right direction, even if they are virtual for now.
Another interesting roll out in mental health tech can be found in the mobile gaming space. Champions of the Shengha by BfB labs is a mobile card game that requires users to slow their heart rate and maintain a relaxed state in order to gain advantages throughout gameplay. Using the proprietary heart rate measure or “magic transmitter” the heart rates of the players are measured over time with those who manage to stay calm gaining mana to cast cards faster, and cast more powerful spells. While the tech can seem somewhat gimmicky, giving users the chance to develop mindfulness and stress management techniques while playing a game is an interesting approach. While studies on its effectiveness are somewhat limited in scope the available results have shown that ¾ of those who played the game reported an increased ability to stay calm and focussed and ¼ began practicing mindfulness techniques outside of the game. Encouraging the next generation to develop these skills while enjoying themselves offers a great incentive to learn something they will require in later life. While this might just be the start of BfB and there biomonitoring games it will be an interesting wait to see what they come up with next.
Finally we shall have a look at one of the technologies most closely linked to traditional mental health treatment, E-therapy. With a wide variety of websites and companies to choose from one could understand a certain confusion when trying to find the tech that works for you. Despite this a few major players have started to emerge including counselling platform Babylon. Offering a marketplace through which patients can find a therapist and book a session for around £49 while choosing between text, video and phone call services. While the data around its effectiveness is somewhat lacking, the site offers a new way for clients to interact with their therapist outside of the traditional face to face model. Not only is this good news for consumers in terms of available options but it will also allow therapists to work from home (or at least outside of the office) something which increases the productivity of the profession and allows for increased efficiency when managing multiple clients as there is no necessary swap over period. Despite these advantages concerns have naturally arose from those in the space as to whether its treatment is effective and safe. Time will have to tell as more people begin to use these services and larger data sets are gathered through which to test its effectiveness.
As data shows adults are beginning to spend more and more time on the internet. This then calls for action to improve the effects of technology on our mental health by both addressing key problems in the software we already use and by creating new technology in order to tackle the issues that have arose from the digital age we find ourselves moving towards. While a lot of the excitement in this space is arising from preliminary trials and emerging technologies yet to see clinical approval it is a start towards a digital age with better tools available for managing mental health. Whether it be transforming pre existing therapeutic roles (as is the case with Oxford VR and Babylon) or creating entirely new dynamics (in the case of BfB) this space is becoming an exciting place to watch.
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