The future of mental health

| February 27, 2018

Depression is expected to become the largest single healthcare burden by 2030. Psychologist Dr Peter Baldwin, from The Black Dog Institute, looks at the role technology can play in the transformation of mental health. 


At first glance, the future of mental health can seem disheartening. Depression is currently the most common mental disorder, with 300 million people affected globally. The World Health Organisation expects that by 2030 depression will have become the largest single healthcare burden, costing $6 trillion globally. For perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to the total global healthcare spend in 2012.

Yet so much about the future of mental health is bright. Thankfully, we are moving away from antiquated views of mental illness which blame people for how their brain works. Many of us now acknowledge that, like any organ, the brain can become ill through no fault of its owner.

The erosion of stigma means that people are taking a more active role in their own mental care. Mental health is no longer considered as merely the absence of mental illness, with more emphasis now placed on building psychological skills to help us rise to the inevitable challenges of life.

Hearteningly, our younger generations seem to be leading this charge. And as digital natives, young people are increasingly turning to technology as the logical future realm of mental health care, harnessing machines to help manage their psychological well-being.

Technology is already transforming mental health faster than anyone expected. The science is now unequivocal that evidence-based cognitive and behavioural therapies can be delivered online safely and effectively.

While most online tools are intended for people with mild to moderate anxiety or depression, they are an important part of new ‘stepped’ models of health where consumers can choose from a personalised range of options that often include self-directed care. Today, someone who finds themselves anxious, perhaps due to stressful life events, can easily and affordably take charge of their own mental health at any time, on almost any device using online programs like Black Dog’s myCompass, which has 30,000 active users. This was unimaginable a few decades ago.

Technology is also completely reshaping how we study mental health. I am fortunate enough to be a clinical researcher at the Black Dog Institute, where the Digital Dog research group is exploring cutting edge e-mental health in collaboration with some of the world’s top minds.

Several of my colleagues are helping create so-called ‘living laboratories’, harnessing key insights from large groups of people’s mobile device use to help us understand and even shape the behaviours that keep people happy and healthy. Other researchers at Black Dog are working to understand how an individual’s social media posts can be used to provide them with tailored mental health recommendations based on machine learning models of mental health risk.

As with any shift in paradigm, challenges arise. Some people – and indeed some professionals – are concerned that digital health spells obsolescence for human clinicians. Yet rather than replacing clinicians, technology will likely become a partner in modern mental health care, affording clinicians and consumers powerful tools to enhance well-being.

Another challenge is maintaining the quality of care as we explore the intersection between clinical science and tech entrepreneurship. Mental health consumers need to be especially savvy in a digital marketplace filled with apps that make tempting claims about reducing anxiety or improving memory, despite a dearth of hard science to support their effectiveness. A helpful rule of thumb is to look for apps developed in conjunction with major universities or centres of research excellence.

Despite these challenges, research suggests that man and machine will meet the future of mental health arm-in-arm. As mental health researchers explore how technology can improve mental health, fascinating questions continue to emerge. For example, how do we help humans develop a therapeutic relationship with artificial intelligence? And conversely, if human consciousness does emerge from a machine, how can we encourage healthy cognitive development within a virtual mind? The real future of mental health likely involves caring for more than just human minds.

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Peter is an academic psychologist and clinical registrar based in Sydney. He is presently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute where he specialises in evaluating and refining eHealth tools. Peter is fascinated by the potential for tech to revolutionise healthcare, education and culture.