Can technology battle mental illness – and win?

This information provided by Smart Cities Council Compassionate Cities.
Wed, 2016-04-13 11:06 -- Liz Enbysk

In the U.S. alone, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates 26% of homeless adults living in shelters suffer serious mental illness. And 70% of young people in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition -- 20% have a serious mental illness.

Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association (APA) says suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24 – and mental illness is the leading risk factor.

At the other end of the age spectrum, a Sacramento Bee investigation revealed a trend toward more divergent populations in California nursing homes. Traditionally safe havens for the frail elderly, the Bee says "a growing proportion of California nursing home residents are younger, more able-bodied patients, many diagnosed with mental illness." The report calls it a "dangerous mix."

Meanwhile, an Onvia forecast of 2016 hotspots in government spending puts mental health at No. 1.  – and says the volume of bids and RFPs in that category grew 30% in 2015.

All of which begs the question, where is the money going? Is it working? What more can be done in the way of prevention or treatment? We've outlined a few ways technology is being leveraged to improve mental health outcomes – but clearly we need more. And success stories need to be shared. If your community has found programs that are working, please use the Comment form at the bottom of this page – or join our LinkedIn discussion forum and start a conversation.

Using online platforms
Often there is a stigma attached to mental health, which can mean people who need help don't seek treatment. Online platforms are one way around that stigma. Here are a few examples:

  • is a Tumblr site moderated by NAMI that recognizes teens and young adults suffering from mental illness often feel hopeless and alone. OK2TALK is an online community where they are encouraged to talk about what they’re experiencing and to share personal stories of recovery, tragedy, struggle or hope. "Anyone can add their voice by sharing creative content such as poetry, inspirational quotes, photos, videos, song lyrics and messages of support in a safe, moderated space," NAMI explains. "We hope this is the first step towards getting help and feeling better."
  • Egyptian startup Shezlong uses Council Lead Partner Microsoft's Azure cloud technology and BizSpark to make online psychotherapy services available to millions in the Middle East who may not otherwise seek treatment due to the social stigma mentioned earlier. The service says it has therapists in all specialties of psychiatry; people can search for one who seems suitable to their needs and then book a confidential and private online session.
  • Talkspace is a subscription-based, on-demand digital therapy service that offers people the option of communicating with a licensed therapist via text messages, audio messages, as well as picture and video messages in a private, text-based chat room. Last year New York-based Talkspace and IBM Watson partnered to leverage Watson's cognitive computing engine to improve the delivery of mental health treatment. "By developing a clinical Q&A system and a therapist decision support system, Watson will be greatly assisting and potentially revolutionizing the treatment of people suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD and more," Talkspace CEO and co-founder Oren Frank said at the time.

Data-driven approaches
Great amounts of data exist in the healthcare space. Finding ways to use it effectively is the challenge. Here are a couple of initiatives aiming to do that.

Lahey Health, which provides healthcare services in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, recently announced a partnership with technology company Quartet to implement a collaborative and technology-enabled model of mental healthcare. The partnership will focus on creating pathways between the network’s primary care providers and mental health providers, improving patient access to mental health resources and analyzing patient and provider data to improve health outcomes.

In its story -- Can Big Data Help Psychiatry Unravel the Complexity of Mental Illness? -- Scientific American explains how psychiatrists are looking to sophisticated computational tools that may be able to "disentangle the intricacies of mental illness and improve treatment decisions." The article suggests that as an emerging field, computational psychiatry "has the potential to change traditional treatment protocols." But as Quentin Huys of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Zurich – who authored a study on computational psychiatry suggests – tells SA, there's a lot of promise but no big payoffs yet.

Putting brainpower to work
Help solving the challenges of mental illness may be found in a couple of new efforts to rally innovators.

The first Psychiatric Innovation Lab will be held in Atlanta next month in conjunction with the American Psychiatric Association's (AMA) annual meeting. In its call for entries, AMA invites anyone to submit ideas for innovative ways to improve mental health care delivery, best practices and collaboration. Ideas will be selected to pitch to top leaders in mental health and there's an opportunity to win a  $2,500 grand prize sponsored by Doctor on Demand.  Interested individuals and groups need to apply by submitting their idea before April 29.

Another arena where mental illness could get attention is the upcoming Smart City Hack (formerly Smart City App Hack) that launched last year in Barcelona. Billed as an opportunity for citizens to "think, design and create solutions for the city they want," the second edition has added Health and Welfare to its challenge themes, which also include Urban Mobility, Energy and Emissions, Culture and Tourism and Collaborative Cities. Organizers say that also new this year is that all technologies are welcome – Internet of Things, mobile apps, etc.

You may also want to watch:
Video: Technology for Mental Health


This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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