Updated: Jul 23
The Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly transformed the landscape in several industries, but mental health has taken one of the worst hits. Humans are inherently social creatures, but the global lockdown has put face to face interactions to a less than minimum. With people losing access to their mobility, many are left reeling from the lack of a therapist or access to their prescriptions. Here we have some of the most innovative solutions to the mental health crisis in the past year.
1. Prescription Video Games
The game, made by Akili Interactive, made history last June when it became the first video game to get the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) sign-off to be prescribed as a medical treatment. Designed for kids ages 8 to 12 with ADHD, EndeavorRX challenges these young patients to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously within the game environment. Children with ADHD often have difficulty concentrating on homework or paying attention in school, but surprisingly, video games are not usually a problem for those battling ADHD. It's an exciting example of a technological tool that harnesses modern kids' natural habits to drive measurable improvements in their mental health.
Moving forward, researchers also believe this could help survivors of COVID-19 regain their cognitive function. As the game stimulates the brain to multitask, it could help older adults stay alert and improve attention span.
2. AI and Smartphone-Assisted Therapy
Artificial Intelligence has been rapidly transforming the tech landscape, as seen from our previous article on Emotion AI. Apart from an increase in accessibility and frequency, using a bot could help patients feel less judged. In human-to-human interaction, there is often a degree of self-restraint. Shame can prevent people from sharing openly with another person. However, when sitting with a virtual therapist, subjects were found to be more willing to express themselves, which could have an important therapeutic advantage. These tools won't replace a human counselor; they're more like an assistant who's available 24/7 to support the patient and alert the provider when an intervention is needed. However, the technological potential could mean significant breakthroughs improving mental health care for people globally.
3. VR For Mental Health
VR has the potential to help treat the surge in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues that we've seen during the pandemic. While VR has been successful in treating PTSD since the 1990s, there is now evidence that VR can tackle a much broader spectrum, such as addiction, claustrophobia and eating disorders. VR works by creating a sense of psychological presence. When VR scientists speak of presence, they mean the technology has a unique ability to convey a sense of just “being there,” wherever there happens to be. The cost of VR technology has fallen dramatically in the past few years, meaning that innovative therapies are now in reach of ordinary providers and patients.
4. Digital Pills
Pioneered by Proteus Digital Health, these refer to ingestible medications with embedded electronic circuits rather than smartphone logging apps. In 2017, the first digital pill became FDA approved, called Abilify Mycite. It contains aripiprazole, a drug used in treating psychiatric conditions, and an ingestible sensor. The latter activates with the stomach’s acid and emits signals to a patch worn on the rib cage. The patch further communicates with an app, allowing doctors to monitor the patient’s adherence. This is a game changer for patients with severe conditions like schizophrenia and severe depression, as missing a medication can have serious consequences. Poor treatment compliance leads to some 125,000 annual deaths in the U.S.; all of which are preventable with this technology. While the company may have filed for bankruptcy, make no mistake - the technology is far from failed.
5. Digital Symptom Tracking
Under normal conditions, patients would typically make routine checkups with their doctors to monitor their conditions. But in lockdown, few patients are inclined to raise any issues with their doctors unless they are serious enough, by which time it may be too late to reverse the damage done. In such cases, the ability to conduct remote check-ins could be life-saving for many patients. A quick video call with a patient could help a doctor spot emerging problems sooner before they require serious intervention. This is highly useful not just for physical conditions, but mental as well.
We live in a world where AI can reduce paperwork, VR can transport people to different places, and pills could be made digital. While the global pandemic may have forced doctors to adopt innovative methods out of necessity, these tools hold immense power and potential to significantly improve the way doctors are able to treat mental health patients. These technologies will only continue to grow in the future, to provide better healthcare for all.