In the 1990’s, the future of treatment for mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety, looked promising. Pharmaceutical companies developed a wide range of antidepressants in the form of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) like Prozac, Zoloft, and Lexapro, and Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRI’s) to combat symptoms of common mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD). This made it pretty straightforward for doctors and clinicians to treat the symptoms. Unfortunately, mental health issues are still progressively pervasive in society. So, instead of relying on prescription medication to heal the world, what else can we do? What does the future have in store for the treatment of mental health and addiction disorders?

The Role of Technology

Technology already has an important role to play in the understanding and treatment of mental health conditions, and doesn’t show any signs of stopping. The world is becoming increasingly digitised, exponentially now with the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to greater online presence for many businesses and health clinics. ‘Experts believe that technology has a lot of potential for clients and clinicians alike.[1]

One of the greatest advantages of the use of technology in assisting with mental health care is it’s convenience. Apps are available that allow users to monitor their feelings and behaviour to provide an objective view of their issues and get help. Those suffering from anxiety, for example, may benefit from apps such as Mind Shift, or SAM (Self Help for Anxiety Management), which serves to help users shift their perspective on anxiety using self-help techniques and positive encouragement. ‘What’s Up’ is another app that has benefits for those suffering from difficulties with their mental health, The app makes use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) methods to help users manage and cope with feelings of anxiety, depression, stress, and related disorders.[2]

We carry our phones with us pretty much everywhere, which means that this type of help is available around the clock, with minimal effort needed to access it. Such apps are also available at little to no cost, making it easier again to access help.

Granted, mobile apps are not a fix-all solution. Levels of efficacy are unproven and when it comes to mental health, each individual’s needs vary widely. But at times of hopelessness and despair, these apps can be lifesavers, because, if nothing else, they serve to acknowledge your difficulties and make it easier to take some kind of action.

Further technological advancements with a promising future in the field of mental health care and treatment include brain scan devices to track and map neural activity, and speech analysis technology, which is currently being used by American multinational technology company IBM to predict the onset of conditions such as psychosis and Parkinson’s disease.[3]

‘In five years, what we say and write will be used as indicators of our mental health and physical wellbeing. Patterns in our speech and writing analysed by cognitive systems will provide tell tale signs of early stage mental diseases that prompt us to seek treatment[4]

The Nervous System and Stored Trauma

One of the most interesting and promising approaches to care and treatment for mental health and addiction disorders lies in the work of trauma specialists like Peter Levine and Bessel van Der Kolk. In 1997, Levine’s book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma was published, which presents a ‘somatic experiencing’ approach to help those dealing with psychological trauma. Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score was published in 2014, and discusses approaches to mental health that move away from traditional drug/talk therapies and focuses more on methods that integrate the mind, body, and brain in the healing process.

Somatic experiencing is based on the idea that stored psychological trauma is at the root of present day mental and behavioural health disorders.

‘Somatic Experiencing sessions involve the introduction of small amounts of traumatic material and the observation of a client’s physical responses to that material, such as shallow breathing or a shift in posture. The therapist will frequently check in with the client to assess and record somatic sensations that may be imperceptible to the practitioner, such as feelings of heaviness, tightness, or dizziness. Practitioners proceed carefully and cautiously to avoid retraumatizing or triggering the client, and they help people to develop and employ self-regulating strategies. A key component to enhancing one’s ability to self-regulate is the practice of alternating, or “pendulating,” between the sensations associated with trauma and those that are a source of strength and comfort.[5]

Further work has been done by English psychotherapist Benjamin Fry in his 2019 book ‘The Invisible Lion’, which, like the work of Levine and Van Der Kolk, looks at the impact that past traumatic experiences have on our present day health and behaviour.

Such an approach carries much potential for the future of mental health and addiction treatment, as the ideas, which fall under the umbrella of ‘nervous system theory’, offer potential explanations not only for mental health disorders, but even for a range of physical ailments and illnesses.

‘In the UK, it is estimated that of one in four of the problems brought to a physician, the doctor will not find an obvious explanation. These are called medically unexplained symptoms.[6]

Chest tightness, physical aches and pains, fatigue, and headaches are just some examples of conditions that are often medically unexplainable. In The Invisible Lion, Fry points out that patients frequently mention ‘stress’ in situations where symptoms are medically unexplainable.[7] In terms of the nervous system, it is reasonable to suggest that past traumatic experiences are responsible for present day physical and mental issues. This is because, in dealing with a traumatic experience, we are often so overwhelmed by the original threat that we don’t fully process it, but instead enter a state of ‘freeze’, or psychological paralysis, storing the energy from our threat response in our bodies until it is released. The problem is that, very often, that energy is not released, but instead carried around in the form of baggage, influencing our behaviour and significantly impacting our physical, mental, and emotional health. This leads to what is known as ‘dysregulation’ of the nervous system.[8]

So, where does the work of nervous system theorists fall in the future of mental and addiction treatment? It comes down to a return to a more holistic approach to healthcare. Instead of relying on external methods to treat patients and their symptoms, like the use of medication, (which of course has its uses and may be needed temporarily), there is growing interest in the idea of healing from within. Ancient practices like yoga and meditation are seeing increased popularity and praise in society. The reason these practices are so important and effective is because they cultivate a sense of awareness and feelings of relaxation, key elements in the journey inwards, to our deeper feeling and patterns of thought/behaviour, and ultimately to our unresolved issues that could be significantly impacting our health.