Estimates suggest 1.1 billion people worldwide suffer from mental health disorders. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and substance use are the leading causes of disability amongst working-age adults. Many of these disorders have their origins in adolescence and early adulthood, specifically between the ages of 15 and 24. Finding ways to diagnose and treat these conditions optimally is now getting the attention it deserves from health systems and government agencies globally.
With over eighty percent of people in the USA using smartphones and over ninety percent of youth being digitally connected, the promise of digital health to empower, connect, and heal young adults seems like an unparalleled opportunity. As digital natives, youth have integrated technology into their lives like no other generation before them.
A new opinion piece by John Torous from Beth Israel Deaconess Harvard published in Nature Digital Medicine sheds light on the potential for a paradigm shift for youth mental health. Digital phenotyping-the moment to moment digital footprints we leave can be used to determine when we have deviated from our standard patterns of behavior and phone use. Phenotyping can often support interpretation when someone’s social habits are changing and could be a useful additional stream of information for diagnostics and monitoring. Other advantages are real-time continuous data monitoring, which can lead us to new models of care. Access to care is often a significant barrier in youth mental health, so in theory, leveraging digital tools to connect and support with new care models seems ripe for disruption.
Another exciting application of digital health is it opens new doors for delivering treatment interventions. We know from the literature that less than twenty percent of people suffering from depression or anxiety receive an adequate dose of treatment to address their condition. Digitally enabled tools may afford us new ways to scale and spread evidence-based treatments in novel ways. Another advantage of offering treatments this way is also they are more likely to be user-friendly and engaging and by design they can reduce stigma in accessing care in new ways.
All the concerns expressed in past blog posts persist in the youth mental health space- how do we know apps are impacftul? How well have they translated the evidence-based into a user-centered experience? How is data being used, and is that transparent to the end-user? The good news all these questions are being formulated into standards so the day isn’t far off when we will have all those answers, but it will take concerted efforts from multiple stakeholders to make this a reality.
Thanks for reading – Trina
(Opinions are my own)
Digital Tools for Youth Mental Health