In the U.S., 1 in 5 adults (43.8 million people) experience mental illness every year. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that those living “with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions” and “die on average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions.” Serious mental illness costs the US $193.2 billion in lost wages, and that number doesn’t begin to account for the associative costs like homelessness, incarceration, and untreated medical conditions.

The World Psychiatric Association and The Lancet Psychiatry convened to create the Commission on the Future of Psychiatry, which states “Psychiatry should embrace the possibilities offered by digital technology, and take an active role in ensuring research and care delivery in this area is ethically sound and evidence-based.”

Is digital health the answer for the millions of people who need mental health support?

Why digital health?

Patients managing chronic illness need continuous support. Given the near dependent relationship people have with their smartphones, telemedicine is a logical solution for those who need help managing mental and behavioral health. Adoption should be especially easy for millennials, who experience the highest prevalence of depression.

Pervasive connectivity can be leveraged for patient support. Rural areas suffer a dearth of healthcare providers but have significantly more unhealthy populations compared to urban centers. Telemedicine presents new opportunities for mental health support for patients struggling to find local clinicians.

Telemedicine has also been a lifeline for people affected by natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria. Displaced from their communities and care providers, or struggling with grief, anxiety, or depression from the harrowing storms, people could lean on telehealth support amidst the chaos.

Digital technology can transform the way we talk about and treat mental health. The ubiquity and widespread acceptance of digital mental health support destigmatizes illness and behavior that many have long suffered from in silence. A phone call or an app provides more anonymity and can be less intimidating than an in-person visit for people feeling shame or apprehension about seeking help.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) reports that “Individuals living in rural locations commonly identify a lack of privacy as a barrier to receiving treatment.” People don’t seek treatment locally for fear of being “marginalized” or “labeled as ‘crazy’” by their communities. Digital health providers offer continuous support while protecting privacy.

Early adopters

Technology has come to the aid of stakeholders aiming to mitigate the negative impact mental illness can have.

In 2010, psychologists working on behalf of the US government conducted studies with armed forces veterans who struggled with PTSD. The veterans expressed a need for a mobile tool which could help them when their PTSD symptoms presented. The US Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD and the US Department of Defense joined forces to build PTSD Coach, a free smartphone app which helps users who’ve experienced trauma manage symptoms, and provides coping tools and strategies. The app also tracks symptoms, as well as establishes a community support network comprised of loved ones. Within its first three years, the app was downloaded more than 150,000 times across 86 countries.

Accessible support at your fingertips

Companies are finding inventive ways to support mental health needs using smartphones. Employee spend so much of their time at work; Lyra Health recognizes that if employers support their employees to manage their emotional and mental well-being, it increases productivity and lowers the cost of medical care. Lyra helps workplaces support their employees’ mental health by matching patients to high quality behavioral health providers.

Dr. Dena Bravata, Lyra’s co-founder and chief medical officer, told Modern Healthcare,“What we are trying to do is help patients get cost-effective mental healthcare in an evidence-based and timely manner.”

Lyra helps them do this through their innovative technology that improves the accessibility of behavioral health services and assesses treatment outcomes to ensure high quality patient care. Care recommendations are tailored for each patient, including the best types of support and provider for each person, and the ability to follow up guarantees patients are getting the treatment they need.

Lantern has built an app which assists users with cost-effective mental health support. Users complete assessments for customized support from professional coaches and in-the-moment support when they need it. They also partner with employers for work-related stress and mental health management, and health plans and providers to aid patients with mental health and behavioral support. Joyable is also appealing to employers to improve employee mental health with digital therapy, but rather than connecting employees to caregivers, the platform connects them to a coach who checks in on them as they complete activities included in their personalized program.

AbleTo is an 8 week coaching and therapy program which reaches patients through phone and video chat for twice a week sessions. For a flat membership fee, users get a personalized care team and plan, available 24/7. One of the membership options includes a psychiatrist, which can also dispense medication prescriptions. The company is working on passively collecting data from users’ phones to identify signals of mental health distress, which then prompts therapists and coaches to intervene.

Individuals or physicians use Quartet to find patient mental health providers. Quartet’s created a free platform which connects patients in want of mental health services to goal-driven therapy programs based on their individual needs and insurance plans. Talkspace is a telemedicine app which provides digital talk therapy to patients without setting foot in an office.

Other telemedicine apps have integrated mental and behavioral health professionals into their offerings, such as Teledoc, Doctor on Demand, and MD Live.

The future of mental health is digital

Mental illness is on the rise, yet resources for care are disappearing. It’s now more important than ever that we find fresh, innovative solutions to address this and support people who need help no matter where they live. With it’s extensive reach and the potential for large-scale adoption, digital health can serve as a major contributor to the solution.