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How technology and data can improve access to mental health resources


Providing and acting on mental health information is one of the most important applications of technology and data.

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The state of the world’s mental health

A universal dilemma is affecting communities, organizations, military members, families, university campuses, and other societal factions worldwide. Collectively, we face a global mental health crisis, and it’s taking a costly toll.

It’s estimated the global cost of this crisis will reach USD 16 trillion by 2030.¹ While many costs will result directly from healthcare and other therapies, most are indirect. Indirect costs can take form as lost productivity, as well as spending on various intervention programs related to education, social services, law enforcement and the like. And not only are mental illnesses highly prevalent, they are also assumed to be largely underreported.

However, the true cost can’t be simply quantified in monetary terms. According to a report by a group of global specialists in psychiatry, public health and neuroscience—as well as mental health patients and advocacy groups—the crisis could cause lasting harm worldwide.² The medical journal The Lancet “called for a human rights-based approach to ensure that people with mental health conditions are not denied fundamental human rights, including access to employment, education and other core life experiences.”³

Managing mental health problems, for a host of reasons that often include shame or stigma, continues to take a backseat to promoting physical wellness. Websites and apps abound for those who want to research physical symptoms like a rash, fever or joint pain. But for individuals seeking to identify or understand potential mental health symptoms or conditions, getting to the right information can be daunting, even (or perhaps especially) with internet access.

Hope from technology

Over time, we expect a rise in both the sophistication and the scrutiny of technological applications geared to mental health challenges. For now, people downloading an app don’t always know what they’re getting, including whose “expertise” is the source of the content.

One of the most important and impactful issues that the application of technology and data can address is access to healthcare. A lack of access to tools for mental health concerns can have far-reaching, negative consequences on patients, their families, and the communities in which they live, work and play.

Technology allows patients to check their own moods and conditions, then prompts them to take healthy corrective actions, it’s already starting to be integrated into smartphones, smart watches, smart cars and smart homes.

Scope of the challenge

Today, nearly every nation is struggling to improve awareness and offer support to those affected—whether directly or indirectly—by mental health issues. One billion people, more than 10 percent of the world’s population, are estimated to suffer from a mental or substance use disorder.⁴

What’s more, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that in 2015, or 322 million people—4.4 percent of the global population—was dealing with depression.⁵ The proportion of the global population with anxiety disorders, which includes some people who simultaneously suffer from depression, was estimated to be 3.6 percent.⁶

Treating pervasive mental health conditions is profoundly more difficult in circumstances where resources are limited or hard-to-access result in marginalized populations.

Democratizing access to mental health care could bring benefits that echo worldwide. No longer would treatments and education be available only to those with enough disposable income or the “right” address. Instead, anyone with a smartphone could obtain critical information to help themselves, a family member, an employee, or someone else they encounter.


Sources: ¹ Kelland, Kate. “Mental health crisis could cost the world $16 trillion by 2030.” Reuters Health News. October 9, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-mental-global/mental-health-crisis-could-cost-the-world-16-trillion-by-2030-idUSKCN1MJ2QN ² Ibid. ³ Ibid. ⁴ Ritchie, Hannah and Max Roser. “Mental Health.” Our World in Data. April 2018. https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health ⁵ World Health Organization. “Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates.” 2017. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/254610/WHO-MSD-MER-2017.2-eng.pdf?sequence=1 ⁶ Ibid.


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Meet the authors

Dr. Lydia Campbell

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, Chief Medical Officer, Corporate Health & Safety, IBM Corporation


Aimee Johnson, LCSW

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, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, US Department of Veterans Affairs


Dr. Heather Stuart

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, Professor of Public Health Sciences, Queen’s University


Heather Fraser, Global Lead for Healthcare and Life Sciences, IBM Institute for Business Value

Dave Zaharchuk, Research Director, IBM Institute for Business Value


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