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The physical restrictions put in place to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic left patients and healthcare providers alike struggling to navigate the “new normal.” Fortunately, the digital technology available has made the rapid transition to tele-health easier. From video chats with physicians to therapy and meditation apps, healthcare is, in some ways, more accessible than ever before.

As we acknowledge World Mental Health Day on October 10, we can look ahead to what the future holds for digital mental health solutions and their prospects for the future beyond the pandemic.

 

Pre-Pandemic

Telehealth has shown itself to be suitable for treatment, even before the pandemic. Over the course of 20 years and more than 100 randomized studies, the use of digital mental health solutions has proven to be effective as a tool for treatment. With Internet-Cognitive Behavior Therapy (I-CBT), the benefits of such treatment have been documented to be equal in efficacy to in-person treatment. This precedent set a promising tone for the abrupt digital transition required of the healthcare field, as it allowed professionals to have faith in the tools and practices already established.

 

Current Applications

Due to the unprecedented circumstances, heightened stress and anxiety levels, and general uncertainty surrounding the future, many individuals have been requesting or seeking mental health support. Headspace, the meditation app, noted a 500% increase of inbound requests from employers pertaining to supporting employee mental health between March and June. Apps like Headspace have been useful in providing a supplemental element of mental health care to users, and there are more specific apps available like BetterHealth and TalkSpace which offer counseling services as well as Recovery Record, which provides assistance for individuals with eating disorders who cannot visit clinics.

In many ways, digital mental health solutions have made healthcare more accessible and cost-effective, especially for those who previously did not seek out mental health services. Telehealth usage and acceptance has risen 40% over the course of the pandemic, offering preventative care, stress relief tactics, evidence-based therapies, and opportunities for users to assess their mental health and take necessary steps to improve it.

 

Future Development

While the existing digital services available for mental health care are sufficient, the rapid transition to such technology has led to a rise in desire for further development and acceleration. With the widespread desire to flatten the curve with the spread of the coronavirus, the medical and scientific communities have simultaneously recognized and prioritized the need for improvement.

The adaptation of wearable tech into a tool to monitor and treat mental health issues is currently in the works; the BioBeats team took to creating an app that connects with wearable technology to help monitor an individual’s health and stress levels and determine at what points stress could cause harm to the mind and body. Using AI, BioBeats works to monitor an individual’s health while also identifying harmful patterns and providing education to the user to improve their overall health.

In a similarly technological fashion, the use of virtual reality in the treatment of mental health issues is also a potential for the future; at present, this prospect is not scalable, at least not during the pandemic, and as access to this technology and the tools it requires continues to grow, the potential for virtual reality application in digital mental health solutions will increase and prompt further development.

 

New Normal

Many patients and providers alike certainly prefer in-person appointments, and some individuals still express an unwillingness to utilize digital services. However, there are many benefits to tele-health which the field has acknowledged this year. From accessibility and cost-effectiveness, digital mental health solutions have served their purpose in fulfilling the needs of patients and connecting them to their healthcare providers during these unprecedented times.

Patients who live in rural areas, have physical health issues that limit mobility and outdoor exposure, or are concerned about mental health stigma may find that the digital mental health services approach better suits their lifestyles. The digital approach can also serve medical professionals well as they may be more included or able to schedule later appointments when working from their own homes, thereby increasing their availability to patients who cannot consult with them during daytime hours.

Not everyone will want to or be able to permanently adjust to a digital mental health approach, but fortunately, a solely-digital future is not yet on the agenda. A blended future with digital and traditional mental health solutions is far more likely.

 

With mental health a hot topic during the pandemic, it is important to ensure that individuals have the resources they need to address their concerns and manage their health. Telehealth has proven to be a suitable tool for patients and practitioners, and its impact on healthcare accessibility, flexibility, and personalization will likely persist into the post-COVID era. As it stands, digital mental health solutions seem like they are here to stay, and as time goes on, they will only continue to become more advanced, accessible, and effective.