April 2019:
Depression is expected to become the largest single healthcare burden by 2030, and forms part of the disease burden that sees mental health disorders and suicide cost the Australian economy an annual $33 million, according to a recently released white paper, Review of the burden of disease for neurological, mental health and substance use disorders in Australia. Commissioned by Mindgardens – a newly formed alliance between Black Dog Institute, Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), South Eastern Sydney Local Health District (SESLHD) and UNSW Sydney (UNSW)- the white paper outlines that this cost reflects a growth rate of 8.6% in mental health disorders from 2010 to 2017.

At first glance, this makes the future of mental health seem disheartening. Yet so much about the future of mental health is bright. Thankfully, we are moving away from antiquated views of mental illness that blames 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.

How the ubiquity of technology can deliver hope for mental health care

The erosion of stigma means that people are taking a more active role in their own mental care, and hearteningly, our younger generations seem to be leading this charge. 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, such as Black Dog Institute’s myCompass, which has 30,000 active users.

Overcoming the challenges of a new world in mental health care

Technology is also completely reshaping how we study mental health. 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.

What’s next?

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?

While mental health prevalence and cost continues to rise, there is hope that the advent of technology can shape mental health treatment and make it accessible to people across Australia’s vast geography. However, understanding the key role technology can play in mental health treatment means the real future of mental health will likely involve caring for and beyond biologically human minds.

Read the original article, written by Black Dog Institute’s Dr Peter Baldwin, here.

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