6 Innovations That Have Drastically Changed Mental Healthcare

Dec. 26, 2019
Mental health treatment has changed a lot in the last five years, and it will continue to evolve

Mental healthcare has undergone a dramatic shift in the last couple of centuries. The sector has moved from one that would sequester the mentally ill, treating them with inhumane options like lobotomies, to one that is beginning to understand and embrace the intricacies of mental health.

The last half-decade has shown some of the most exciting innovations in the field of mental healthcare. What new treatments and techniques have drastically changed the mental healthcare field?

1. Telepsychiatry

One of the most significant challenges many people face when seeking mental healthcare is a lack of available professionals in their area. Either the local psychiatrists and therapists aren't taking new patients, or they're booked out for weeks or months, making it impossible for those who need it most to get help.

Telepsychiatry gives patients the ability to talk to a licensed mental health professional in their state without ever having to leave the comfort of their home. An appointment takes place over a computer or phone via video chat, improving the availability of mental healthcare, reducing delays in care that can lead to emergency room trips or the need for expensive inpatient care.

It can even make it comfortable for patients who might not feel safe in the same room as a medical professional, letting them get the help they need while remaining in a place of safety and security. 

2. Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence might be the villain of popular movies like “The Terminator,” but in the real world, it's quickly becoming one of the most valuable tools in medicine. The challenge with mental health is that the majority of the field has its basis in subjective patient analysis and is limited to the information gathered while the patient is in the office or during a telepsychiatry appointment.

AI is anything but subjective, focusing instead on hard, quantifiable data points. That's what makes it so popular for things like medical imagery analysis — it can identify a lesion on an MRI because it is out of the norm, according to its programming. Now, imagine if programmers could make mental health just as quantifiable, changing that subjective data collecting into the kind of objective data points an AI or machine learning system can use.

One such program, created by Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., collected data from more than 5,000 patients admitted for self-harm or suicide attempts. Using that information, it could tell whether the patient would attempt suicide again within the next week with an 84 percent accuracy rate and whether they'd attempt it in the next two years with an 80 percent accuracy rate. AI adoption is in its infancy in the mental health fields, but it could be the most vital innovation in mental healthcare of the 21st century.

3. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), colloquially known as electroshock therapy, used to be a common treatment for depression that didn't respond to other methods. While it could be effective, the side effects on cognition and memory were often too much for patients to bear. Today, instead of treating resistant depression with ECT, mental health professionals can rely on magnets.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, uses magnetic devices to change the brain's electromagnetic environment.

Essentially, they use a large electromagnet that targets the areas of the brain that control mood, reducing the symptoms of depression without the need for medication or other invasive treatments. One clinical trial of these treatments found 47 percent of patients with resistant depression responded to TMS, and 30% went into remission, no longer defined as clinically depressed. 

4. Smartphone Apps

Smartphones are an integral part of most people's lives. As of 2019, analysts estimate more than 5 billion people own and use smartphones around the globe. When it comes to mental health care and information gathering, these devices represent a vastly untapped market. As mentioned before, the majority of mental healthcare relies on a subjective snapshot of the patient and how they appear when they're in the office.

Smartphones can generate a picture of a person's mental health between appointments, using digital journals or other similar technology. While it does rely on self-reporting, for those serious about their mental health, this can be an invaluable tool. It's no replacement for an appointment with a mental health professional, but it can complement professional treatment. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America maintains a database of all mental health smartphone apps that they have reviewed and certified. 

5. Remote Monitoring 

While healthcare professionals primarily use remote monitoring technology for elderly patients who want to live independently, it could also prove to be a valuable addition to the mental health field. By using wearables that monitor heart rate, pulse, blood pressure and even galvanic skin response — the change in the skin's electrical resistance in response to stress — psychiatrists can paint a picture of their patients' mental state, based on objective and quantifiable data.

This tech could also be valuable for patients who might be in crisis. They might not choose to reach out to their mental health team directly, but the remote monitoring system could alert the team, helping protect those who might need it most. It might seem intrusive, but it could provide an alternative to expensive inpatient care for patients who don't have the means to afford that kind of treatment. 

6. Speech Analysis

Speech analysis doesn't only provide medical professionals with direct information about the patient. It could also become an invaluable diagnostic tool in the future to help diagnose those with mental illness. It's possible to program AI and machine learning to detect acoustic cues that could indicate the presence of one or more mental illnesses.

A professor, Eleni Stroulia, and her student, Mashrura Tasnim, submitted a paper to the Canadian Conference on Artificial Intelligence that detailed the potential applications for this technology.

By studying speech patterns and unconscious verbal cues, this program could eventually detect PTSD in veterans, warn of the emergence of psychosis and even help diagnose bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. 

Looking toward the future

Mental health treatment has changed a lot in the last five years, and it will continue to evolve as scientists learn more about the human brain and how it works. These innovations are just a small sample of what the field will see in the years to come.

Kayla Matthews is a MedTech journalist and writer. Her work has also been featured on Medical Economics, HIT Consultant, HealthIT Outcomes and Health IT Answers. To read more from Kayla, please visit her blog here.

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