Exploring software's promise to improve mental health

Digital technology can reach people who once had no access to healthcare.

For most people around the world, mental health care is a luxury they can’t afford or can’t access. But digital technology can reach people who otherwise lack access.

In a commentary for Nature Human Behavior, Dror Ben-Zeev and David Atkins, professors of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said “the future of digital mental seems bright.”  The two co-direct the UW Behavioral Research in Technology and Engineering (BRiTE) Center.

More than 10,000 mental health smartphone apps are now available for public download, they noted, though they were circumspect about whether digital technology will “herald a true revolution.”

Their essay identified key areas that healthcare, tech and research communities should focus on to actualize digital mental health's potential:

  • People with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia need to inform the creation of assistive software. The voices of these people are rarely heard at software companies and in academia, the hotbeds of digital health development, the authors said.
  • Apps must be designed to provide performance-based feedback for clinical providers, and the technology needs to fit into a provider’s normal workflow.
  • Digital technologies must be modified so they function in low- and middle-income countries. This includes meaningful engagement of low and middle-income researchers and people living with mental illness in those countries.

“Digital mental health cannot serve only high-functioning, tech-savvy consumers – leaving behind those who are not – if it is to make a meaningful impact,” they wrote.

Media contact: Bobbi Nodell, 206.543.7129, bnodell@uw.edu

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Tags:psychiatry & behavioral healthmental health

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