Tech in psychological well being: What’s working and what’s not?


As mental health is emphasized more in people’s daily lives, digital care in the space is becoming a booming industry. It’s evident in the money: the mental health tech sector raised a record $5.5 billion in 2021, a recent CBInsights report showed.

But while some areas in the digital mental health space are working, other areas need improvement. The topic was discussed Wednesday on a panel at MedCity’s Invest Digital Health conference. 

What’s working

Between two people who have depression, one may struggle getting out of bed in the morning, while another may be angry and display outbursts. 

“Those people have the same diagnosis and get that same standard treatment, but why do we think those two people should receive that same type of treatment?” said Jennifer Gentile, senior vice president of innovation at Ieso.

Instead, what’s working is the personalization of treatment plans. Even if two people have the same diagnosis, they may have different care needs. That’s where evidence-based interventions, or programs that have been proven to work, come into play.

“I see [evidence-based interventions] in training of psychiatrists, psychologists,” Gentile said. “When supervised, when things seem to be going well, it absolutely can work.”

Examples of evidence-based interventions include cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves changing thinking patterns, and dialectical behavior therapy, which helps people understand difficult feelings and learn to control them. When it comes to technology, there are several apps that use these approaches, such as Wysa and DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach.

Another area that’s gaining traction in mental health are solutions that are direct-to-consumer, said Cristol Barrett O’Loughlin, founder and CEO of Angel Aid, a mental health support nonprofit for those living with rare diseases. These solutions are allowing people to gain mental health support on their own, and it’s gained popularity in recent years due to Covid-19.

“There are so many different solutions out there for people to pick up the phone and literally just start working with their own mental health needs and ending that isolation, ending that medical uncertainty, ending that sort of disruption in home and work life,” O’Loughlin said. “People are looking less and less outside of themselves and they’re finding their own solutions.” 

What’s not working

While some solutions are proving to work for those struggling with mental health, there are still issues when it comes to access for patients, Gentile said. About 20% of people with mental health conditions are actually able to access care, and about 50% of those who receive care actually get better, she cited.

Additionally, a lot of data and literature is outdated, she said. 

“Our dataset is built on predominantly white male college students,” Gentile claimed. “A lot of our literature … hasn’t changed in decades now with their outcomes rate.”

Another area that’s proving challenging in mental health is providing services in a cost-effective way, said Deepak Gopalakrishna, founder and CEO of Oxford VR. While some forms of treatment like cognitive behavioral therapy are effective, it’s challenging to do it at scale, he said.

“There are things that work, so DBT and CBT work and the data is out there,” he said. “The problem is it’s actually expensive to deliver. It costs a lot of people time. So can you scale it? You can’t because you’ve got to throw more people at it. In fact, you’ve got to throw highly trained people.”

Not only is it expensive to provide effective mental health care through technology, but it can be difficult to get clinicians to adopt new solutions, Gopalakrishna added. Learning new technology can take a lot of time. Additionally, a recent paper on AI in mental health showed that some clinicians are concerned of being replaced by AI.

“Getting clinicians to do anything new … is like pulling teeth,” Gopalakrishna said. “It’s just borderline impossible.”

In reality, adopting technology can improve the workflow for clinicians, who spend much of their time doing administrative tasks, he said. It can also offer them beneficial training. Much like golfing, providing mental health care takes practice, something virtual reality can provide, Gopalakrishna said.

“The reality is, unless you actually practice and build that muscle memory, it’s going to be really hard to execute and build those sort of memories that are needed. And that’s what virtual reality offers,” Gopalakrishna said.

Photo: SIphotography, Getty Images



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