From developing new treatments to making existing treatments more effective and more efficient, the medical community is constantly looking to innovate and improve. And while this is a process that takes time, the rapid rate at which progress is being made is pretty astounding.
Mental health is an area of medicine in which sometimes, it seems as though there are more questions than answers. This is largely because the brain is such a complex organ and, unlike most health issues, the majority of symptoms that come with psychiatric conditions are intangible.
That being said, psychiatry has come a long way in recent years and not just in a clinical sense—society’s perception of mental health as a whole has also changed significantly. Let’s take a look at the decade’s most consequential technological advancements in mental health.
While it’s true that the first iPhone came out in 2007, smartphones really hit their stride within the past ten years—and the rise of the smartphone, in turn, triggered the explosion of the mobile app. Nowadays, it seems like there’s an app for everything, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when it comes to mental health.
Whether you’re seeing a therapist regularly or you don’t see one at all, mental health apps are a convenient, widely accessible means of keeping yourself healthy, even if you don’t necessarily struggle with a specific mental health condition.
Granted, there’s not much scientific evidence to back up the proposed benefits of these kinds of apps, but some mental health professionals have expressed support for mental health apps and testify that their patients find them helpful. That being said, an app alone can’t act as a replacement for therapy, but for patients who feel like they’re struggling in-between sessions, apps can be a good way to stay on track with their treatment.
The Most Popular Mental Health Apps
One of the biggest reasons that mental health apps are so groundbreaking is the seemingly endless array of conditions that they’re able to address. These are just some of the categories that have become popular in recent years.
Apps for Suicide Prevention
Having suicidal thoughts can be extremely isolating, and you might feel too self-conscious to ask for help—even if you want to. Apps like notOK and Stay Alive are designed to keep you safe when you’re feeling your worst.
Apps for Addiction
Recovering from an addiction is a life-long commitment, and there’s no easy way to do it. Apps like SoberTool and WEconnect allow you to track your progress and manage your recover, while apps like SoberGrid can help you to connect with other sober individuals to give and receive support.
Apps for Anxiety
Anxiety is a spiral that can feel impossible to get out of, especially if you can’t find a way to distract yourself. Apps like Self-Help for Anxiety Management (SAM) and Happify aim to break the cycle and encourage you to practice healthy thinking, while apps like Colorfy and Breathe2Relax give you a hands-on way to clear your head.
Apps for Depression
Depression can make it hard to motivate yourself to do things, even the things that you know will make you feel a little better. Apps like What’s Up? and Sanvello provide you with coping mechanisms that you can use wherever, whenever. Reinforce positive thinking patterns on good days, and use them as a small step to managing your mood on bad days.
Apps for Eating Disorders
Recovering from an eating disorder can make every meal feel like a test that you’ll always fail. Building a healthy relationship with food takes a lot of time and hard work, but apps like Rise Up + Recover and RecoveryRecord can be there with you every step of the way, allowing you to log your progress and remind yourself why recovery is worth the effort.
Apps for Self-Care
Practicing self-care is a difficult task that almost everyone needs help with. Whether you’re trying to add a little exercise into your daily routine (Freeletics) or want to recharge with meditation (Headspace), you can find an app to help you to schedule some “me time” in whatever form works best for you. There are also apps for an extra dose of inspiration in the form of uplifting text messages (Shine), reminding yourself to drink water (Plant Nanny), and pretty much just about everything else that you can think of.
Telemedicine—that is, medical treatment that functions via technology—is redefining treatment options for those with mental health conditions. Thanks to tech-based communication like video-chatting, text messaging, and web-chatting, mental health professionals are more available than ever, even if patients are unable to meet with them in-person.
Video-chatting is particularly utilized in telemedicine, as it still provides patients with face-to-face contact, which can be an important aspect of therapy and psychiatry. According to the American Psychiatric Association, telepsychiatry “is equivalent to in-person care in diagnostic accuracy, treatment effectiveness, quality of care, and patient satisfaction . . . Telepsychiatry has been found especially effective with respect to the treatment of PTSD, depression, and ADHD.”
Telemedicine doesn’t just mean that treatment can be more convenient—it also means bringing treatment to people who have never been able to access it before. This includes patients who have restricted mobility and those who live in remote areas. With telemedicine, requiring specialty treatment doesn’t have to be a barrier to getting the proper care, and it allows for higher levels of continuity in patients’ treatment, which translates to optimal results.
In addition to making remote care an option, telemedicine is streamlining the treatment process by making it easier to conduct evaluations, prescribe medications, refill prescriptions, and other logistical aspects of psychiatric treatment.
Online Screenings for Mental Health Conditions
In today’s world, the first thing that most of us do when we encounter a problem is to search the Internet for a solution. After all, the Internet is an essentially limitless wealth of information, and it would be silly not to take advantage of it, right? Well, the same logic applies to mental health, especially in a society where talking about mental health issues is still a taboo subject.
If a weird rash has mysteriously appeared on your arm, your instinct would probably be to do a little digging online to see what it could be. Similarly, many people today are using the Internet as a means to judge their psychological symptoms. (For the record, if you’re taking an online quiz to see if you’re depressed, you probably are, and you should seek professional help immediately—which, luckily, the Internet can help you do, too.)
Not only do online mental health screenings and self-assessments demonstrate the legitimacy of mental health conditions and in some cases, encourage people to find help, but they also serve as a tool to educate the public about mental health and the important role that treatment plays in managing any condition.
There was a time when virtual reality (VR) was confined to science fiction—needless to say, things have changed. While using VR to treat mental health conditions is still relatively new, there are some positive indications that it could be truly transformative.
Right now, VR is primarily being used in exposure therapy, which is used to treat conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and certain anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy is a type of therapy that is centered on exposing the patient to triggering stimuli so that they can overcome their fear and anxiety. VR is particularly useful in this sense, as it allows mental health professionals to simulate stimuli in a safe, controlled environment, rather than the patient having to rely on their own imagination or having to engage in a real-world scenario.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a type of brain-stimulation therapy that uses magnetic waves to alter the brain’s chemistry. Though it was first approved by the FDA in 2008, it took several years for the treatment to become a realistic option for many patients, as most insurances did not initially cover it.
While the science behind TMS has been around for a long time, its clinical use is still fairly new, and as such, not many people have heard of it. TMS is non-invasive and non-pharmacological, meaning that the patient is able to remain fully awake throughout the treatment and, for the most part, should be able to continue taking any medications as normal.
Currently, TMS is predominantly used to treat depression, which is what it was first approved to treat in 2008. More recently, in 2018, the FDA approved TMS as a therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder, though this use of TMS is not yet covered by most major insurances. Despite its clinical use being limited to these two conditions, TMS could potentially have a much wider range of applicability, and research is still underway to determine what else TMS might be able to treat.
TMS has been shown to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of treatment-resistant depression, which occurs when a patient’s depression persists despite treatment for a significant period of time. For patients that have tried therapy and medication but are still struggling with depression, TMS is a reasonable next step in terms of treatment options.
A Hopeful Future Ahead
The trial and error that goes into treating a mental health condition can be frustrating, and sometimes, it might feel like we’ve barely made any progress at all. However, it’s important to remember that the mental health community is larger, stronger, and smarter than ever before, and things are only going to keep getting better.
Technology and science go hand-in-hand, and as one advances, so does the other. This means more treatment options will continue to be developed, and mental health professionals will be able to accommodate patients better. Looking at how far we’ve come in the past decade, who knows where we’ll be in another ten years?