TelehealthTechnology and Mental Health

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in any given year and  between 4 to 5 percent of US adults have a serious mental illness.  Approximately 1 in 5 youth in the U.S. have, or will have a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime.  At the same time, the National Council for Behavioral Health reports that nearly six in 10 (56%) Americans are seeking or wanting to seek mental health services either for themselves or for a loved one.

The prevalence of mental health conditions combined with the lack of access to care and more sophisticated technology has stimulated interest in the use of technology to enhance and expand mental health care. 

Benefits of Technology

Although not a panacea for the lack of mental health care, the use of technology can enhance and expand mental health care in areas, including rural areas, where providers are scarce.  The use of technology may be especially helpful in rural areas where mental health providers are scarce.  Technology may also assist clinicians in reaching difficult-to-reach populations either due to geographical barriers or stigma associated with seeking help. The fact that some types of technology, such as apps, are lower in cost than traditional care may also facilitate access.   Finally, technology is convenient.  As the National Institute of Mental Health points out, treatment can take place at any place and any time, 24/7. 

With any technology, there are also concerns about its use.  Common concerns include the need to protect privacy, research that demonstrates that technology works as well as traditional methods, and an array of ethical issues.  Despite this, technology is promising for its potential to improve mental health care.     

What kinds of technology exist?  

Mobile Applications:  There are currently over one thousand mobile apps devoted to mental health, with many focused on anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Mental health apps allow people who are hesitant to seeking services get help in an often anonymous way. Mobile apps can also allow doctors and mental health professionals to monitor progress and treatment adherence. Although mobile applications have great potential, there is very little regulation of mental health apps or research on their effectiveness. These apps can often be a good first step for those who have avoided mental health care in the past. 

Currently, apps exist for:    

  • Self-management: user adds information, so that the app can provide feedback (i.e., medication reminders). 
  • Thinking Skills
  • Skill-Training: help users learn new coping or thinking skills; often set up like games.  
  • Illness Management, Supported Care: allow users to get additional support by interacting with another human being.

 Internet-Based Support Groups:  Support groups, such as Big White Wall, provide an option to individuals who prefer to remain anonymous in accessing mental health treatment or who cannot easily access treatment during ordinary working hours.  In addition to anonymity and round-the-clock help, these sites often offer educational resources and may offer opportunities for members to talk to one another.     

Telehealth:   Telehealth is technology that allows an individual to consult with a health care provider via phone or video chat. Telehealth can be beneficial for mental health treatment because it reduces costs of services and improves access to services for those who can't see a mental health professional in person. 

Virtual Reality:  Virtual reality is relatively new, however it is rapidly becoming important in the field of mental health.  As Digital Health Today reports, virtual reality headsets can "help desensitize patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, by recreating their personal triggers.  This helps them develop coping techniques."  This technology can also help patients suffering from depression, anxiety, and other disorders.  

Using mental health technology

Tips for individuals thinking about using technology
  • Ask a trusted provider for a recommendation. 
  • Find information on the credentials and experience of the app developer(s). 
  • Turn to the literature to see if there are any empirical publications on the technology. 
  • Determine if the app is based on a empirically supported treatment, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. 

Tips for providers thinking about using technology

  • Remember that technology is still relatively new so do your homework.  What are the opportunities in using technology to supplement traditional care?  What are the limitations? 
  • Think about how you'll engage patients
  • Implement strict quality controls to ensure data privacy and security 
  • Develop protocols for handling emergencies.