How Digital Technology Can Enhance Mental Health

Mental health has become an increasingly important issue in recent times. The World Health Organisation expects that by 2030 depression will have become the largest healthcare burden, costing $6 trillion globally. That is roughly equivalent to the total global healthcare expenditure in 2012.

Several media and academic sources have discussed the growing power of social media networking and internet data collection when it comes to marketing and political influence. However, digital technology has the power to change millions of lives, and there are more ways that digital technology can impact our mental health.

1. Digital health may improve barriers to care.

One way technology can help is when one provides information through easy-to-use, well-designed, reputable websites and interfaces. For example, technology may provide easier access to care for those who live in areas with limited provider coverage (such as rural areas where mental health providers are scarce), via telehealth and teletherapy. Students in rural Dickinson, North Dakota, will soon be able to use telehealth to meet with a psychiatrist hundreds of miles away.

 Technology may also enable people to ask medical questions in a more anonymous or easy access setting, via virtual clinicians or other information access points. While some laugh at the idea of Google Medical School, there is still an undeniable influence in online sources for health information.

2. Digital health may provide supplemental tools to enhance care.

Mobile and online applications are very widely used when it comes to ways to monitor health behaviours and encourage adherence to treatment regimens. For example, apps that track daily medication dosing, provide reminders, track physical activity or anxiety symptoms are all available, with many more on the way. Some apps offer on-the-go cognitive behaviour therapy exercises and relaxation techniques. Several studies show that as a complement to in-person or standard-of-care treatment modalities, these apps can improve health outcomes in multiple areas, everything from cholesterol levels to addiction behaviours.

3. Digital health may offer big data to solve or inform healthcare issues.

Tracking and pooling large sets of data available via popular online websites or apps may provide valuable insights into mental health behaviours. Some analyses looking at linguistic keywords have noticed previously unknown patterns in people more likely to have depression, or even suicidal thoughts. Others look at environmental or population factors via online data caches to see who tends to have higher rates of obesity or addiction and more. Certain trending online searches may indicate previously little-known side effects with a particular drug or may indicate efficacy trends (good or bad) after interventions like vaccines during a flu season. Researchers are increasingly recognizing the potential of big data for improving conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression – you only have to look at MQ’s recent data science awardees to see the kind of impact it could have.  

4. Digital health can influence people with health messaging.

By harnessing the power of rapid and vast communication, public health initiatives on social media networks can reach wider or targeted audiences for particular risk factors or messaging, such as online groups that discuss depression or alcoholism, or particular age groups at risk for certain conditions. Sharing personal stories of illness more frankly than before can reduce stigma and improve education on mental health.

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