Most of us have grappled with some form of mental health issue during this unprecedented global pandemic. Snapshot studies released in September, which was Suicide Prevention Awareness month, highlighted this worrying fact even further. According to the Samaritans, in a survey of over 70,000 adults in the UK, over 1 in 10 reported experiencing suicidal thoughts or thoughts of hurting themselves during the first week of lockdown.
Having to unexpectedly adjust to a completely novel and restrictive way of life has inevitably presented major challenges to how we take care of our mental health and track our wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. Research from online psychology clinic, My Online Therapy found that during the pandemic, 35% of people feel more anxious, 20% of people feel more lonely, 28% of people feel more stressed and 17% of people feel more depressed.
The national conversation around mental health has always been relatively open with campaigns and public figures making it a widely spoken about topic in recent years, however, it is clear that the pandemic has substantially transformed the conversation. Discourse around treatment and therapy was once seen by many as a private experience with one therapist, involving talking about emotions and trauma face-to-face. This perspective is gradually changing as technology is being integrated into the treatment process.
VR technology as a form of treatment
One example is treatment of fear of heights through VR technology, which has helped patients who felt their phobia could not be treated by traditional ‘speaking therapy’. Such treatments demonstrate that mental health conditions can be treated by technology and proves that some mental health disorders may benefit from targeted, bespoke treatment.
Oxford VR is a spin out from Oxford University, which uses virtual reality to treat several mental health conditions, including fear of heights and anxious social avoidance. Polly Haselton, clinical partnerships manager and cognitive behavioural therapist at Oxford VR told MobiHealthNews: “The illusion that all therapy must be delivered in person is now fading – and although there are benefits to meeting a therapist in person, a more hybrid model is starting to be seen as the norm now.
“Mental health therapy is often seen as expensive and difficult to access, with long waiting times, and technology is key to unlocking this to a wide range of people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Access to this treatment should not be a privilege, and this shift in delivery is a positive to take from this terrible crisis.”
Although tech has already seen quantifiable and tangible benefits in improving mental health disorders, whether it is a sustainable form of therapy and whether the shift from face-to-face to virtual tech will have any long-lasting benefits post-COVID-19, is yet to be seen.
On this, Haselton said: “Face-to-face therapy still does have a role to play in mental health treatment, and VR treatment is a brilliant supplement to this, although we recognise it may not be for everyone.
“VR treatment can be used to enhance face to face therapy, allowing the patient to experience and confront situations they would find difficult in the real world, virtually, from the comfort of their own home, with the help of their Virtual therapist.
"This can be particularly important for patients who struggle to leave their home as a result of their mental health problems,” concludes Haselton.
Mood tracking and wearable devices
With the aim to improve how sites are managed and to promote wellbeing in the construction sector, in June, national framework organisation Pagabo partnered up with health tech company Moodbeam to launch a wearable device called Moodbeam One, enabling construction workers to capture mood in real-time.
Christina Colmer McHugh, co-founder and director of Moodbeam, spoke to MobiHealthNews about the shift in attitude towards virtual mental health treatment. She said: “Personally, I think that everyone has made an admirable effort to embrace the virtual world in recent months due to lockdown, but it’s crucial that any technology or mechanisms we put in place are easy to use, understand and ultimately benefit users.
“Throughout the pandemic, there has certainly been a universal feeling of ‘being in this together’, and if we can drive forward to break through traditional stereotypes and bias towards how therapy ‘should’ be carried out, then there is no reason that technology couldn’t be the answer in providing essential support through apps, screens and virtual face-to-face meetings."
Gerard Toplass, executive chairman at national framework provider Pagabo, said: “Only a couple of decades ago, we looked at the rates of accidents on construction sites – and thanks to cross-industry collaboration we’ve been able to identify the root cause and make changes to bring those accident rates down. We now need to do the same with mental health by building mental health resilience into our organisations and business plans – and this is an area technology can help with.”
Technology like Moodbeam One is becoming more commonplace in education and workplace environments, encouraging more awareness and reducing the mental health stigma that is historically rife in some industries. To date, mood trackers have traditionally taken the form of diaries or score charts, however, being able to diarise the highs and lows during the day, in real-time has the potential to lead to more informed routes to self-care and medical intervention if needed.
Combating loneliness with tech
Studies show that loneliness has been a key factor towards exacerbating mental health disorders during the pandemic. However, a campaign called Find Your Tribe was launched following research highlighting that even before lockdown, many people in the UK have been suffering with loneliness. The study, commissioned by global cybersecurity company Kaspersky, showed that four-in-10 (42%) of Brits who say they have felt lonely during the pandemic have actually felt less lonely, or the same way, than they did before it began.
It also highlights that while technology is clearly proving to be a benefit, not everybody is as tech-savvy as they would like to be. Nearly half (46%) of people who say they are lonely all of the time wish they were more confident in using technology, as it would help them feel less lonely.
The study also found that 31% agreed that they actually find it easier to make and build friendships online and 30% find it easier to portray themselves as they would like through online means.
Kaspersky has since published their key findings on struggling with loneliness and their top 10 tips for navigating a world that “may represent a new norm beyond the coronavirus.”
Key mental health technologies of 2020
Also in recognition of Mental Health Day, Frost & Sullivan presented five key technologies and investments in mental health management contributing to treatments for mental health disorders, according to healthcare experts in the US.
Telehealth: Video-consultations play a crucial role in continuing treatment and therapy sessions. There has been widespread adoption of telehealth services, and it is useful in disease management.
Patient engagement tools such as mobile apps and portals: Mental health apps are useful in lessening the symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. Frost & Sullivan estimates there are over 10,000 consumer-facing mobile apps globally, and not all are leveraged and promoted by healthcare providers.
Data analytics: Healthcare data gathered by telehealth and mobile app solutions must be converted into insights to offer a customised and preventive care approach.
Artificial intelligence: AI-powered chatbots can screen for symptoms, provide feedback, and connect patients to psychiatrists for counseling or treatment.
Virtual reality: Gamification offers an immersive experience to increase the overall effectiveness and adherence to treatments. Patients can navigate through the simulation to achieve a task as part of their treatment plan.