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Technology is disrupting business but also our mental wellbeing. Is it the problem or the cure, or both?

9th July, 2018

Tina Woods, CEO and Founder, Collider Health



The potential for entrepreneurs to disrupt industries and extinguish corporate laggards has never been greater. For entrepreneurial companies, disruption is inevitable, either outwardly from technology or internally from growth. But for larger corporates, most employees crave stability and rhythm and constant change creates stress and anxiety.  Disruption may mean laying off redundant staff and/or re-skilling them for new jobs as firms deploy AI and automation to increase productivity, for example, leading to ongoing employee uncertainty.

But the technologies themselves are also creating anguish, unhappiness and mental health problems across all segments of the population.   A recent study by Professor John Clarkson at the University of Cambridge shows that over one third of people feel overwhelmed by technology today and are more likely to feel less satisfied with their life as a whole. Almost half of all young people surveyed said that they were already consciously trying to cut down on their use of technology, and 42 per cent of both adults and children said they had tried to cut back on the amount of time they spent on social networks.

The negative effects of social media have been well documented, with even Facebook executives admitting that the platform may pose a risk to users’ emotional well-being.  A number of studies have found an association between social media use and depression, anxiety, sleep problems, eating issues, and increased suicide risk.

So what is the impact of mental health problems on society? More than 450 million people are currently affected by mental health issues globally according to WHO, and this is growing annually.  In the UK, mental health is the single biggest cause of disability. According to NHS statistics, over 12.5 million working days are lost every year because of stress, depression or anxiety; in 2017 NHS England spent £9.7 billion on Mental Health care alone and the cost to sufferers’ wellbeing and to their families is incalculable.

Clearly there is a need for more effective solutions to curb this mental health crisis.  Despite widespread evidence showing that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is effective in treating a very wide range of mental health conditions, accessing face-to-face CBT can be difficult due to long waiting lists, perceived stigma and cost.

Fortunately there are a number of very innovative solutions coming through the pipeline, in many cases invented by those who saw first-hand or experienced mental health problems themselves.  These innovations are also collecting hugely valuable datasets –and this is where AI could help really make an impact on mental health through early detection, better access to care and less stigma.  

While the holistic impact of AI remains to be seen, the case for using AI within mental health is surprisingly encouraging, as backed by medical studies and pilot programmes.

In the case of early detection, AI is being used to flag up early warning signs about the status of people’s mental health.  Early research efforts have used AI to predict individual’s outcomes by analysing the way people communicate. Bedi and colleagues carried out some research in 2015 that involved using AI to predict the onset of psychosis in youths. Companion, developed by Cogito and DARPA,  uses real-time behavioural analytics to create clinically validated behavioural indicators of mental health:  the app listens to the sound of the user's voice and monitors the frequency of their mobile phone usage and uses AI to interpret changes in inflection, energy of pitch and amount spoken to detect crucial changes in the user's mental health.

Similar to Cogito, IBM used the ‘power of listening’and harnessed AI to detected differences in speech patterns using  Natural Language Processing (NLP) to predict the onset of psychosis in patients.

In addition to detection AI can play a big role to offer more access to personalised treatments. Tomois a peer support network and behaviour change tool for mental health and wellbeing, that becomes more personalised as the person uses it – the tool is adaptive and learns about the way individuals handle challenges in their lives.

Ginger.iois another online platform that uses AI and machine learning alongside a staffed clinical network, tailoring its suggestions to the needs of the user and providing access to a variety of treatments.The algorithm might, for example, suggest that the most suitable course of action is CBT.

Interesting, AI is also becoming a useful tool to counteract stigma- which can act as a strong deterrent to seek help and speak out.   If done well and ethically designed, AI can be perceived as non-judgmental, non-opinionated and overall neutral and does not necessarily form part of any wider social construct with all the associated cultural norms and expectations.   This has been the driving purpose behind Woebot, the chatbot that aims to replicate the open ear of a trained professional. It learns about the individual and tailors its questions to their situation through repeated conversations.

While it is a good thing that new apps and tools are coming through, do they actually work? And could they do more harm than good?  A recent studyshowed that many mental health apps can lead to over-reliance and anxiety around self-diagnosis, and highlighted the importance of apps being well-informed, scientifically credible, peer reviewed and evidence based.

The NHS applies a rigorous assessment process before recommending apps for the NHS apps library, and a number of recommended apps can be found hereincluding  Big White Wall, an online community for people who are stressed, anxious or feeling low,  Calm Harm,  an app designed to help people resist or manage the urge to self-harm,  and Ieso, a digital health tool that addresses the lack of accessible CBT by meeting people where they are are - on their smart phone while collecting an invaluable mental health data set.  

A recent reportby the AHSN network shows the importance of ‘co-production’ to bring in citizens in the design of services of the future- listening to their needs from the perspective of being a mental health sufferer and dispelling myths and taboos in the process.

Outside of NHS-endorsed apps, other mental health apps have also proved clinically effective. Sleepio, a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) based app for sleep management, has been shown in several trials to help long term insomnia – one trial put efficacy at 75%. Wizard, a brain training app developed at the University of Cambridge, was found to improve the memory of patients with schizophrenia.    MYMUP Digital  provides online interventions, assessments and activities that build resilience and promote emotional wellbeing, empowering users to self-care and improving workflow for services.

There are many programmes in development that aim to provide people with the skills to be more emotionally resilient in life. eQuoo uses gamification, AI and psychoeducation to teach essential emotional and psychological skills to stay ahead in all key life relationships – whether work, family, or romance. Breakthrough behavioural software like BEEP are putting cognitive research into practise by providing tools that empower, reward, recognise and most importantly build real human connection between people in the workplace.

It is clear that with technology encroaching on all aspects of our lives, it may be part of the problem for creating the mental health crisis we have today, but certainly looks to be part of the solution too if well designed, ethically-applied and evidence-based.

This article first appeared in D/sruptionmagazine


Tina Woods, CEO and Founder, Collider Health

Tina Woods is CEO and Founder of Collider Health, an organisation that works with corporates, government, start-ups, third sector and investors to accelerate innovation and transform health with sustainable impact at scale. Tina is an ecosystem architect and builds collaborative networks and strategic partnerships to facilitate smart investment. Tina is chair of Future Health Collective and is currently working with Innovate UK on consortia development for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund for Healthy Ageing (£98 million) and the national Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) AI initiative to build the artificial intelligence ecosystem for the NHS. She is health expert for D/sruption and sits on the advisory board for the MADWorld Summit, which aims to eradicate stigma and spark a new era of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

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