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Can data-driven technology transform mental health?

Kirsty Ritchie, FCCA Dip. CST, co-founder and director, Mind & Mission and former professional rugby player Mark Blair, co-founder and director at EffectiveNow

Technology has played a significant role in allowing us to continue working during the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, and is likely to play a role going forward in how we manage our mental health.

Digital support is not new, health apps have been around for many years now and range from mindfulness to preventing self-harm, but can data-driven technology transform mental health?

Arguably prevention is better than cure.  Many apps promote mental wellbeing and provide advice on how to live better. The internet is also awash with generic advice on how to look after your mental health.

In the workplace, employee surveys are commonplace.  Now there are technologies using complex algorithms and evidence-based research to provide insight into mental fitness, providing a mechanism for individual development and organisational strategic planning.  An example of one such technology being Cognomie, whose proprietary tool Cognosis is currently used by organisations such as Johnson & Johnson, Total Energy, and the NHS.

Digital ‘phenotyping’ is a relatively new phenomenon that is looking at trying to predict illnesses such as bi-polar disorder or depression by analysing factors such as tone of voice, language, and length of call.  The aim being to be able to spot warning signs and provide some type of alert.

Other technologies are used to monitor, for example apps such as Moodily and Moodpath, track feelings and use data to inform the user of patterns which may provide insight into potential issues.

The wearables market is booming; Fitbit for example sold 16million units in 2019 and Apple, which incorporates wellness technology into its Apple Watch, sold around 31 million units (reportedly more than the entire swiss watch industry).  We can monitor heart rate, steps, stairs climbed, sleep and many other areas through watches and other tracking devices.

In business, there are now paid for apps and wellness platforms such as Unmind, OK+ and Wellbot, which are funded by an organisation and deployed to staff to monitor trends, which in turn is fed back confidentially to the organisation for insight.  Some of these technologies features desktop notifications to promote taking physical breaks and consider hydration.

Chatbots are becoming increasingly popular too, we see them in everyday life on retail and other customer focussed websites.  The NHS is trialling a chatbot as a form of triage.  It will ask the patients questions which previously would have been a lengthy form filling exercise.

The forced lockdown during the Coronavirus pandemic resulted in many therapists moving to an online model of counselling.  While initially this was resisted by many as it was perceived to be taking something away from the therapeutic process, ultimately it has been more favourable than not.

For or against?
The term mental health covers a scale from positive and thriving to depressive, anxiety, and psychotic disorders, dementias and more.  Mental illness is by nature subjective, it is driven by biological, psychological, and social factors, which are different across any population.  It is also possible for an individual to have significant periods of wellbeing whilst at the same time having a clinical diagnosis.

When diagnosed with a mental illness, patients require a level of monitoring.  Arguably technology such as the NHS’s chatbot could support the administration process and out of hours wellbeing of sufferers to free up clinicians to spend more face to face time with patients.   While chatbots can provide a potentially valuable service, they most definitely cannot provide the level of ethical care that a professional clinician, psychologist or psychotherapist could.

Many technologies that claim to support mental health are perhaps simply a mechanism for commercial gain.  If the technology does not consider the user, for example, not enough research has gone into it, then is it not helping or worse still, it is doing more harm than good.

To those who surf, swipe, and scroll daily, the thought that some do not yet have access to the internet escapes them.  It is a stark reality that as technology evolves, it isolates many as investment in non-technology-based services becomes negligible.  Where counselling services have moved online, some are excluded through a simple lack of experience using suitable online technology.

Do we want more software listening in to our every conversation even if it is attempting to predict issues?  It might be considered spying but in the age of Alexa and Siri, arguably there is no difference here.

When evidence-based research has been incorporated, technology is providing users with a range of tools to become more self-aware. This is essentially at the heart of preventing mental illness and can only be a positive. It is reasonable however, to challenge whether all current or new technology is providing a sufficiently diverse range of monitoring and diagnostic tools to cope effectively with the multidimensional features of mental illness.

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