In recent years the stigma around seeking help with mental health challenges has been reduced, with greater public awareness of mental illness and steps that can be taken to avoid or mitigate problems.
Phrases like ‘PTSD’ ‘neurologically atypical’ and ‘trigger’ are now in heard ever more frequently. And there is growing understanding of the need to not use the word ‘commit suicide’ but ‘die by suicide’ as the former phrase implies that a crime or sin has been committed.
In the midst of this, there are some alarming statistics that demonstrate many people are unable to access the treatment they need. One quarter of the population will experience mental health issues each year and between 70% and 75% of people diagnosed with a mental illness receive no treatment.
A workforce survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that there is a shortage of psychiatrists across the country with 10% of consultant roles going unfilled. And the number of mental health nurses working for NHS England has decreased by 10.6% since 2009.
Can technology fill that gap between supply and demand for mental health services? The founders of several start-ups seem to think so and they using artificial intelligence and data analytics to have the best possible outcome.
Ieso Digital Health is one company using the convenience and accessibility of the web to offer patients with mental health issues access to cognitive behaviour therapy with affiliate therapists. The Cambridge-based company is and was established in 2009 and has conducted studies on patient data to find out which factors are most likely to lead to a positive outcome for the patient.
BlackThorn Therapeutics describes itself as a computational sciences company which leverages “data-driven approaches to solve the patient selection problem.” It is using machine learning to target medication to particular patients in drug trials and subsequently personalised medication for mental health disorders.
X2AI is an automated mental healthcare and behavioural change programme. It uses emotional artificial intelligence and its chatbot Tess gives users a recipient outlet to express their feelings.
There are other less data-based solutions. One is the brilliantly named Woebot, founded by clinical psychologists and with AI and technology experts on the board.
Social enterprise Big White Wall a support network and live therapy platform. The team behind Big White Wall work with employees in both the public and private sector, higher education and the armed forces. There is also Flow Neuroscience which combines app-based behaviour with a virtual therapist and a headset that delivers transcranial direct current stimulation.
Of course, these types of therapies and these modes of access to help will not suit everyone who is in need of help. Lack of human contact and anonymity may make some people more likely to open up, while others may feel expressing their fears and feelings to essentially an inanimate object is futile. There are also concerns about the data that is collected about patients, how and where it is stored and what could happen if that company were to be acquired at some point in the future.
These are discussions we – patient organisations, health trusts, entrepreneurs and developers - need to have considering the sensitivity of this type of data. For now, the existence of these platforms means that more people can possibly access some type of mental health support.