Mental Disorders: Technology Approaches To Treating Mental Disorders
How Technology Is Changing Approaches To Treating Mental Disorders
How Technology Is Changing Approaches To Treating Mental Disorders
Chatbots help manage anxiety, VR technologies help overcome trauma, and animal-like robots keep people with schizophrenia company. We understand how technology helps people and what are their shortcomings
The number of people diagnosed with mental health problems is on the rise: one in eight people in the world has a mental disorder, and since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people living with anxiety and depressive disorders has increased by more than a quarter.
Constant stress, burnout, sleep problems and inability to perform even basic tasks – mental disorders directly affect productivity, which is reflected in work processes. Depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy $1 trillion a year.
However, people are in no hurry to turn to specialists. Possible reasons are fear of talking to a stranger about personal problems, stigma, and the belief that talking to a therapist is unlikely to help. Another is finance: in many low- and middle-income countries, mental health care is still considered a luxury.
What Technology Can Do In Psychotherapy
Digitalization has already changed transport, education, and business. Health care does not stand aside – and psychotherapy, in particular. The use of technology solves a number of problems that mental health professionals and patients face on a daily basis.
Availability. Not all people who need psychiatric treatment can benefit from it. For example, only a third of people with depression receive mental health care. Digital technologies can be a good help in the treatment of affective and anxiety disorders for people from villages and remote areas.
Establishing diagnosis. Objective and continuous measurements of emotions and behavior are not available for diagnosis or evaluation of treatment outcomes. But perhaps for psychotherapists, the right tool has appeared – digital phenotyping. It allows the doctor to make a diagnosis using smartphone data: about social interactions or physical activity.
Treatment. Usually, more than one doctor is involved in the treatment of a patient. The combined help of specialists is more effective in treating depression in the short and long term. Collaboration is facilitated by technological platforms and electronic medical records.
An important place in this area is occupied by artificial intelligence – a computer system that can cope with simple cognitive tasks. It is based on machine learning and data analysis. The use of artificial intelligence increases the speed, scale, and accuracy of tasks performed, freeing up time and resources to solve problems that machines cannot handle.
In the 1960s, one of the fathers of modern artificial intelligence, Joseph Weizenbaum, developed the ELIZA computer program. She was created to talk to people, and for convenience, she was made a “psychotherapist”: she was loaded with a set of rules, “… similar to those that can be given to an actor … for improvising on a certain topic.”
The program was intended only for research purposes – experiments in natural language processing. However, in the end it led to a broad discussion about the possibilities of artificial intelligence, including as a potential psychotherapist.
Artificial intelligence is already being used to diagnose patients, track symptoms, and predict recovery. It is also the basis for many technologies.
Problem: Psychotherapists are overwhelmed and can’t make an appointment – the healthcare system simply doesn’t have enough resources. And a person with a depressive or anxiety episode needs support.
Solution: A chatbot that will help people fight negative thoughts, offer helpful tools, and engage in evidence-based therapies. And all this – around the clock.
Example: Woebot application. It is based on machine learning, which gives “predictable answers” to user questions using cognitive behavioral therapy methods. Chatbots are especially useful for vulnerable groups – pensioners, teenagers, and people who, for some reason, do not want to contact specialists.
Problem : Survivors of terrorist attacks, wars, and sexualized violence are sometimes haunted by memories of trauma that interfere with fulfilling lives.
Solution: Immerse the person in a virtual reality simulation of a traumatic event. This helps to show the patient that he is no longer there and is not in danger.
Example: Drs. Joan Difede and Hunter Hoffman used VR to treat one of the survivors of the World Trade Center attack. The patient experienced a 90% reduction in PTSD symptoms.
Problem: In the hospital, people with dementia experience behavioral and mental symptoms such as aggression, apathy, aimless activity, disinhibition, apathy, or delirium. Therefore, helping patients can be difficult.
Solution: Reduce negative emotions, and behavioral symptoms and improve the patient’s mood. This is what therapeutic robots are capable of.
Example: The PARO robot, which looks like a baby white seal, reduces feelings of depression and isolation when interacting with patients. This is a kind of animal therapy, but instead of an animal – a mechanism.
Paro is not the only therapeutic robot. Kaspar and Nao can help children with autism spectrum disorders by teaching social skills such as imitation, engagement, and empathy.
The Other Side Of Technology
Every innovation has limitations and backfires. Technology in psychotherapy is no exception. The question is how developers, medical specialists and patients themselves will react to them.
A significant issue is data security. It’s important to check the app’s terms of service before using it: what data is collected, who has access to it, and how privacy is protected. It is unlikely that anyone wants their medical information to be used by marketing resources.
Not everyone is good at digital technology. Fear, inability, a sense of alienation interfere with interaction with technology – even with a smartphone. What is especially important for people with cognitive and behavioral disorders?
Sometimes algorithms make biased predictions due to limitations in the training data set. In 2019, researchers found that the algorithm used by the UnitedHealth Group has biases that prevent black patients from receiving additional care. An important question is who is legally responsible if the bot made a mistake with the diagnosis.
Digital technologies are just beginning to be used in psychotherapy, so it is still difficult to assess the impact of changes on therapeutic practice. On the one hand, they increase patient comfort and make mental health care more accessible. On the other hand, they do not have all the skills that psychiatrists and therapists have, and are inferior to them in understanding the human psyche and emotions. However, one thing is certain: the new technologies are not a substitute for psychiatric treatment, but rather a useful addition.
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