Innovation

6 ways tech is changing how we help people with mental illness

Mental health is a serious issue in the US, but not enough people have access to professional help. Here are six ways tech is helping bridge that gap.

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NAMI AIR, an app for people with mental illness and their families.
Image: NAMI

Though it's often downplayed or even mocked, mental illness is a serious medical condition, and it isn't getting the attention it needs in the US. One in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in a given year, and one in 17 have serious chronic mental illnesses, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

But only 60% of adults with a serious mental illness received mental health services in the past year, and only about 50% of youth age 8 to 15 received some sort of treatment. Add in the number of homeless people and prisoners who don't receive the treatment they need for their conditions, and it's obvious that there is a problem in the US with getting people the treatment they need.

Digital health is allowing for every medical industry to expand its reach and accessibility, and that presents a great opportunity for mental health services. Here are 7 things to know about this growing potential of providing mental health services online.

1. The importance of private companies

Because government funding for mental health services is constantly shrinking, the private sector has to step up — and that leaves the door wide open for tech companies. There are many online service platforms for depression and anxiety, including Beating the Blues, which is an eight-class course that uses cognitive behavioral therapy to help people understand the link between how they think and how that influences their behavior.

Another example is Big White Wall, a digital report and recovery service that is also available as an app. It's a community of members who share and support one another, with the help and guidance of trained professionals.

2. The potential for smartphone apps

As more people realize the potential of tech helping mental illness, the number of apps in the App Store are growing. The National Health Service in the UK now has a public library of health apps, with an entire mental health section. People are using these apps to log their daily activities, set reminders for medications or other parts of their recovery, and get therapy. One example is Recovery Record, a tracker for eating disorder treatment. It's helping both specialists and patients better understand and monitor the disorders.

3. Tech could be key for teenagers

Teens love their smartphones. A 2013 Pew Research report showed that almost 80% of teens have cell phones, and 37% have smartphones. So, apps are a great way for mental health services to reach a demographic that has a problem with mental illness. One half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by the age of 14. Only 20% of children are diagnosed and treated in any given year.

About 90% of children and adolescents who commit suicide have a mental illness, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people age 15 to 24. There's quite obviously a link missing there, and technology may provide an answer. One example: Teen girls created Safe & Sound, an Android app to help teens suffering with depression and anxiety.

4. The National Alliance on Mental Illness promotes tech

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the go-to for information about mental illness, and a great resource for people who want to better understand it. NAMI also covers trends in the industry on its website, and has said that while traditional therapy is no doubt helpful, that's just not accessible or affordable for so much of the population.

That's where the internet comes in, and NAMI is behind this idea. The organization recently launched NAMI AIR, an iPhone and Android app that is designed for people living with mental illness and their families to anonymously report or ask questions about anything related to mental illness.

5. Building a network

Mobile and web platforms are allowing people to report things anonymously, and that's especially beneficial when they are just trying to find out information about chronic illnesses or answer questions they may have. But building a community for people — whether it's teens, children, women experiencing postpartum depression, or veterans with PTSD — is critical because it can help prevent suicide or other types of dangerous episodes.

The internet provides a safe space for people to connect about what they're experiencing with mental illness. These communities are also helping shed the stigma surrounding mental illness. For instance, there's Post it Forward, a movement started by Tumblr; the It Gets Better project, Facebook's suicide prevention feature to partner with nonprofits to report suicidal content and offer help; and Love is Louder, a project by the Jed Foundation.

6. It's helping medical providers, too

Care providers who work in this field are also benefitting from technology. Like any other medical field, to better understand and care for patients struggling with mental illness, having data about them is key. One company that does this well is Ginger.io, which is based on research from MIT Media Lab. It actively and passively collects data from patients and provides alerts, allowing providers to reach out before something happens. Having the data also helps lower costs for both providers and patients, because they reach out when they need to, rather than at scheduled visits plus extra time.

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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