To mark World Mental Health Day, we're posting a series of blogs over the coming week profiling some topics in the field.
Last week, Nesta held an event on the future of mental health technology which brought together clinicians, technologists and campaigners to debate the limits and potential of new innovations in the field. The topic generated real energy - people feel passionately about the potential for these tools to help, or indeed, to harm. The debate at the event made it clear the extent to which the ‘mental health tech’ space now encompasses a much broader and diverse range of tools, analytical methods and technologies. The therapeutic use of VR for schizophrenia, for example, has relatively little in common with mindfulness apps - making generalisation increasingly challenging.
So in the future, we will need much finer-grained ways of differentiating and categorising between interventions and technologies. Lack of evidence in the field has been a widely acknowledged, persistent problem (and one reason why the promise of mental health apps has fallen flat in recent years), and while there have been some important strides forward, speakers at the event saw this deficit as a fundamental hurdle to be overcome. Given the vital importance of both human relationships and the expertise of therapists in managing mental health difficulties, there was far more positivity from the audience towards examples of technology being used to supplement - rather than substitute - for both.
While still in its infancy as a field, precision psychiatry aims to better tailor treatment options to a specific individual's context and has been made possible (in principle) by a combination of brain imaging, big data, machine learning capabilities and digital trackers. As in other areas of health tech innovation, this field will no doubt give rise to thorny questions around data privacy, consent and ownership.
The potential of Virtual Reality to complement treatment for people suffering from problems such as phobias and schizophrenia is also being actively explored by researchers and therapists. We profile the AVATAR approach, which, in common with many of the more promising innovations in the mental health tech field, is founded on inter-disciplinary collaboration. This echoes a key theme from the event, where participants flagged the need for partnerships of designers, clinicians, technologists and academics working in tandem with people experiencing mental health difficulties.
But however compelling the frontiers of mental health technology may appear from a distance, there are some more fundamental obstacles to be overcome in the short-term before any benefits can be felt more widely in a cash-strapped system. One of the speakers at the event, Victoria Betton, reminds us in her blog today that there are real challenges around adoption and practitioner confidence to scale before technology can become part of the ‘everyday currency’ of mental health care in the UK.
It is also important to remember that technology is still only one small part of the picture, as we will see in a forthcoming piece later this week from Andy Bell at the Centre for Mental Health. Andy stresses that it is essential to co-design new solutions with communities and to develop more creative models for evaluating those approaches. When resources are especially scarce, knowing which innovations are cost-effective and worthy of further investment is critical.
Clearly, funding decisions being made today on mental health will be critical in shaping the nature of the new solutions, innovative practices and technologies of tomorrow. Later this week, Katja Bego will take a look at the data from the EU’s Horizon 2020 fund to see where investment from that pot is flowing - along with flagging some forthcoming projects to watch out for. Looking ahead to the future of funding in the field, the major announcement from the UK’s Research Councils that they will be taking an explicitly interdisciplinary approach to mental health funding is an especially encouraging omen. In a Q&A, Cynthia Joyce (CEO at MQ, the mental health research charity) explains why this shift could be a game-changer.
Nesta has championed people-powered, data-driven innovation for the health system - and a consistent theme in these pieces is the importance of these principles in the context of mental health. Better use of data (in terms of evidence, treatment outcomes and funding) appears to be central to fuelling progress in a sector suffering an acute shortage of funds - while technological solutions will also need be designed with, rather than simply for, the people they are intended to help.