Advances in technology have opened the door to all kinds of innovative approaches to mental health treatment. For example, formerly treatment-resistant depression can now be treated using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which uses repetitive magnetic pulses delivered through a coil placed on the scalp to stimulate the area of the brain that controls mood.

Alongside this kind of advance in technology, digital tech is having a profound impact on the way we deliver therapeutic interventions, conduct research, monitor wellbeing, communicate with other health care professionals, and support clients.

Online Therapy

John Kim of The Angry Therapist puts it like this, “it’s kind of like bookstores and Blockbuster. Everything is shifting online. The same thing will happen with mental health.”

Well, maybe not, but suffice to say that online has a lot going for it. Working as a therapist online, on VSee, skype, or any other platform that allows video calling, has proven to be an effective option for many practitioners. As long as you have a decent and speedy internet connection, software like Skype should work with no problems. Note though that your client needs to have decent internet as well for this to work properly!

Working online means you are not tied to one locality meaning clients who would not normally be able to access your services, can do – brilliant news for those clients who need someone with particular expertise. Clients and practitioners who are the best possible fit can now be connected to one another nationally, and even internationally.

Mobile Mental Health Support

From the very simple, anyone with the ability to send a text message can contact crisis support like the Samaritans, to the very sophisticated, such as apps that track the users behaviour patterns and stats, mobile mental health support can be very simple, timely, effective, and accessible.

There are apps to improve mental agility, to practice meditation – like the very popular Headspace, and to connect people to peer or professional support. Mobile mental health care is convenient, and is ideal for those who are unable to attend face-to-face appointments because of other commitments. It is generally lower cost which means more people can access necessary treatment, and hopefully it means that our clients can make great use of their money, and their time! Technology is also there 24 hours a day, meaning it can provide round-the-clock monitoring or support.

Tech treatment is not meant to replace traditional modalities though, and there is continuous research into whether or not they do work as effectively as traditional methods. There are also issues around privacy and how to guarantee confidentiality, and there is currently no overarching body that can regulate tech and the data it generates.

Self-Management Apps

These apps require the service user to input their information so that the app can provide feedback and guidance – this can relate to managing stress, attending appointments, or that monitor diet and fitness level - like MyfitnessPal.

There is also a plethora of additional complimentary equipment that can help the user to do things like monitor their heart rate, their breathing, and their blood pressure, and then receive guidance based on that information.

Apps for Improving Thinking Skills are a new, and now evidenced based, way of helping the user with their thinking skills – these maybe useful in particular for those with the risk of cognitive impairment.

Skill-Training Apps

Skill-training apps can be really useful in helping the user to track and practice their use of new therapeutic skills and strategies.

There are some addiction specific apps that provide all kinds of support like:

Pocket Rehab – that has a multi-layered support system to help people struggling with, or directly/indirectly affected by addiction. Pocket Rehab offers 24/7 real-time recovery support and relapse prevention for its members for free through an online community of volunteer providers, and:

Recovery Path – which incorporates aspects of Motivational Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Community Reinforcement to boost your treatment and recovery plan.

Virtual Reality

Practitioners often use a technique called exposure therapy when working with trauma and phobia. Exposure therapy is meant to allow the client to explore the trauma related event in a controlled and safe way, so that eventually the traumatic event does not hold such a powerful emotional charge. Scientists have tested Virtual Reality as a tool in the treatment of those suffering with PTSD, and a small number of practitioners are now successfully using it in their exposure therapy work.

Sarah Fineburg of Yale University in New Haven recently published a study that used computational psychiatry, in the form of game called Cyberball, to explore borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD, sometimes known as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, is a condition that presents somewhat similarly to PTSD, and is a pervasive disorder where we can show patterns of instability in our relationships, struggles with self-image, and impulsivity.

Precautions

There are no national standards against which the effectiveness of these apps and programs can be checked, this means that service users and treatment providers must be a bit cautious – a few guidelines when choosing a tech provider that meets your clients’ needs are:

  • Do you know enough about tech to make an informed choice? If you feel you could use some guidance, ask for recommendations from trusted providers.
  • Is the product offering something that is evidence based? - research has shown that Internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can be pretty much as effective as conventional CBT for things like depression, anxiety, social phobia, and panic disorder.
  • Choose carefully, consider whether or not you want a fully automated product or one that allows you to contact a person.
  • Do your research – can you find out anything about the credentials of the developer?
  • Beware of fake claims or endorsements!
  • Research - the PubMed database offered by National Library of Medicine has lots of good research on tech development in the mental health field.
  • Trial it – try out the products and see if they feel intuitive and effective to you as a practitioner.