Technologies have changed the way we care and brought interesting ways to promote mental health, as well as detect and face its challenges. Think about it: Your fitness tracker or smartphone can already detect changes in your mood or behavior.
These tools use information covering physiological, biological data, sleep patterns, speech and social media activity to identify signs of depression, anxiety and other symptoms. Even if still experimental, this “digital phenotyping” can create a holistic digital image of behavior through active information, given by the user, or passive, through sensors.
This real-time data analysis with artificial intelligence can help track symptoms, identify patterns and provide real-time alerts on signs of risk and suicidal behavior.
In 2018, I discovered a project in which people donated access to all their digital data to be used in mental health research. Using multi-analyses, it was possible to predict a risk of suicide in the previous six months.
Virtual reality can be a valuable tool in treating a variety of conditions, such as anxiety, phobias and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Children and adults on the autism spectrum can learn social interaction techniques and communication skills. Teenagers can learn coping strategies; Mental health teams and future therapists can train using avatars to increase their empathy, compassion and understanding of users’ experience.
Studies suggest that serious games and other resources can be used in psychiatry — they are effective in psychology, reduce symptoms and improve patient responses. In the United States, the FDA (the agency that regulates and inspects food and medicine in the USA) approved, in 2020, the first video game to be prescribed for children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Ellie, a virtual therapist, was developed to treat veterans with depression and PTSD, and can detect and analyze verbal and non-verbal signals such as facial expression, changes in tone of voice, gestures and postures.
Chatbots can combine mindfulness and self-care exercises, help refugees deal with the terrors of war, apply psychological techniques to treat anxiety, depression, chronic pain and be connected to virtual therapists.
In Brazil, I highlight Topty, from Unicef (United Nations Children’s Fund), which deals with issues of self-esteem.
Social networks and video platforms, with their algorithms, are perhaps the most controversial and well-known of current technologies, generating many debates and even lawsuits.
If, on the one hand, cyberspace facilitates the construction of online communities, support networks, belonging, reduction of stigma and identification with positive role models, on the other hand it can bring triggers for someone vulnerable and at risk, and its excessive use may be linked to an increase in mental disorders and digital violence.
Ethical issues, such as the depersonalization of care, the humanization of the machine, the storage of sensitive data on digital platforms, among others, need to be debated and regulated. As a society, we need to understand the complexity of these issues to move beyond the good/bad dichotomy. There is no easy answer.
Searches for mental health terms on the internet increased by 98% in 2020 alone, the year in which the Mental Health Map was created using an API (application programming interface) that helps people find information about free mental health care locations across the country, with search for the user’s zip code or geolocation.
In 2022, we launched the Center for Innovation and Research in Mental Health, Technology and Suicidology. A new report from the Vita Alere Institute on the subject is now available. Free courses, such as Bem Estar Digital, help healthcare professionals understand and deal with the impact of patients’ digital lives.
People need access to care and connectivity in a country where we have the largest number of anxious people in the world, where depression continues to grow, and although technology does not replace mental health professionals, and we need to include the social issues involved to If we don’t just place all the responsibility for their illness and improvement on the individual, it can be a great help for many.
Those who think that innovations in this area will decrease are mistaken. Convenience, autonomy, anonymity, cost, reach, interest, remote monitoring and 24-hour availability must be taken into consideration along with the potential to make a difference to those who matter most, the people who need help.
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