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What Is the Future of Mental Health Technology?

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We hear a lot about the adverse impact of technology on our mental wellbeing, but several new tech projects aim to prove that virtual simulations and robotics, for example, can be used to actually improve health and wellness. The burgeoning field of mental health tech is aimed at improving user wellbeing, with apps and technologies that aim to provide guidance for delicate mental health concerns, decrease isolation, and potentially save lives.

Building an Institutional Hub for Mental Health Tech

“Technology has opened a new frontier in mental health support and data collection,” states the National Institute of Mental Health’s site on Technology and the Future of Mental Health Technology. As they note, there is tremendous promise with mental health technologies due to their convenience, lower cost, and anonymity features. However, there’s also some uncertainty, as there is currently very little industry regulation or metrics for users to judge effectiveness. There is also a major concern around data collection and protection, especially in light of the sensitivity around the data. As Skip Rizzo, director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, said at last year’s Future Tense event on mental health care and technology, “When you’re building [for mental health] you have to appeal to a higher standard.”

The mission of the recently launched Stanford Mental Health Technology and Innovation Hub is “to develop, evaluate, and disseminate mental health technology and innovation to foster emotional wellbeing and ease the burden of mental illness worldwide.” Vicki Harrison is Manager of Community Partnerships for the Stanford Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, a part of this new innovation hub. According to Harrison, the Stanford Mental Health Technology and Innovation Hub was created to “embrace technology innovation and all the ways in which it can be leveraged to meet our mission of fostering emotional wellbeing and easing the burden of mental illness.” She stated that the Hub hopes to achieve this by partnering with industry, the public sector, and the community to “expand impactful, ethically-sound innovation in the mental health sphere.”

In response to concerns people have with incorporating emerging tech into the mental health space, Harrison calls for a studied, ethical approach.

“We need to develop a greater evidence base for the technologies being applied toward mental health, and do so in an ethically sound research context. There is a proliferation of new apps and ideas coming to the market on a daily basis, but we don’t really know to what extent they are effective or harmful. Doing so in a studied and ethical way, while keeping pace with technological innovation is a challenge.”

Simulating Conversations about Mental Health

Kognito is a NYC-based “health simulation company” that has been a pioneer in the field of utilizing virtual humans in simulations that aim to alter behavior and lead to real life conversations. Many of their simulations have been focused mental health and wellbeing, such as suicide prevention and a recent mental health at-risk simulation targeting college students and faculty. According to the company, more than one million people have engaged with Kognito’s simulations. Similar to a flight simulator, Kognito programs let users test out scenarios in a safe environment. Unlike watching a tutorial or PSA featuring humans, people may feel less judged and more open to feedback if receiving a message from a virtual human. In Kognito simulations, users assume a role (i.e. college student, family member, doctor) and enter a practice environment where they interact with a virtual human to roleplay a difficult conversation (i.e. signs of drug abuse, depression).

From Kognito’s “At-Risk For College Students.” In the simulation, users take the role of a university student and interact with another student who is displaying signs of drug abuse, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. This 30-minute interactive simulation is intended to identify, approach, and refer at-risk students.

Kognito utilizes evidence-based strategies in communication drawn from models in neuroscience and social cognition, along with the science of learning theory.

“The skills that we’re giving them and the kind of relevance to the role of the user is really, really important,” adds Jennifer Spiegler, SVP of Strategic Partnership for Kognito. “They see themselves right away in these [simulations] and these are very familiar situations for them and they’re very memorable. So they leave that simulation experience with tools that they can then activate immediately almost in any interpersonal interaction.”

Combating Loneliness with Robotics

Outside of tools created to assist others in helping with mental health and wellbeing, there are also those intended to improve the wellbeing of the user. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults are at an increased risk for depression. A major culprit for depression in older adults is the feeling of social isolation, something the connectivity through technology has the potential to alleviate. The Connect2Affect initiative, funded by the AARP Foundation, calls social isolation a major health epidemic that has the equivalent impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Connect2Affect estimates that over 8 million adults over 50 are affected by isolation.

ElliQ is an “Active Aging Companion” created by the Intuition Robotics, headquartered in Israel with an office in San Francisco. The social robot is currently in beta, with the first market for the device being the United States. The ElliQ is an AI-driven social robot that generally sits on a desk or counter, and is designed to prompt older adults toward increased engagement with connected loved ones and by suggesting activities. It may, for example, suggest that the person go for a walk or call up family and friends. Or perhaps she will ask the user to name three countries that start with the letter ‘T’.

“We want to help fight social isolation and loneliness and keep older adults actively engaged by doing things that are a little bit different than technologies that are out there today,” said Dafna Presler, VP of Marketing for Intuition Robotics. “We designed ElliQ first and foremost with older adults in the design process.”

A major benefit of ElliQ, according to Presler, is that the robot is proactive as opposed to smartphones or laptops, which are reactive. In other words, the likelihood of having a Skype call with the grandkids may be increased if ElliQ, which has a motion-sensing camera and touch sensor that sits next to the users’ smartphone, prompts the person to reach out. “If you’re in the room and you walked by her, then she can just look at you, and maybe…the cognitive computing algorithm decides that it’s a good time to maybe suggest an activity to you,” said Presler. “And that those activities can be mental, cognitive games. It can be to call your family members.”

We all know how technology has been designed to increase user engagement on a platform or with a device. It may be time that it is designed to help us better engage with each other.

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