Though COVID-19 is no longer classified as a global health emergency, the spike in mental health disorders that accompanied the rapid spread of the virus hasn’t abated. Following the pandemic, studies found that depressive symptoms grew from a base of about 193 million people worldwide to 246 million, which is about 28%. Anxiety disorders grew 25% from about 298 million people affected to 374 million.
Although these are sobering statistics, the rise in mental health conditions has also meant that more people are comfortable seeking support. As a result, there’s never been more demand for health and wellbeing services with the behavioral health market expected to grow to $105 billion by 2029.
And tech innovators continue to develop solutions that address specific gaps in the treatment pipeline, democratize access to treatment such as therapy and provide tools to manage our wellbeing holistically.
Detecting signs of depression in new ways
Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 280 million people in the world are battling depression. And though a range of treatment options exist, the condition can often go untreated.
This is because the warning signs, such as fatigue or a change in sleeping patterns, vary from person to person and can easily be overlooked, meaning that patients may not even be aware there’s an issue to address. On the other hand, a report from the Mental Health Million project found that up to 45% of individuals in the U.S. with clinical-level mental health risks don’t seek support, with reasons ranging from a lack of knowledge of what kind of help is available through to a fear of being stigmatized.
While AI is already being used to diagnose a range of cancers with remarkable accuracy by using image recognition technology, signs of mental distress don’t appear neatly on an MRI scan. However, according to Grace Chang, CEO of Kintsugi, the answer may lie in our voice.
“What is really remarkable is that psychiatrists have known that in the area of speech there has always been a tie to depression and anxiety,” she mentioned during a recent appearance on In Machines We Trust, a podcast from MIT Technology Review.
Kintsugi has developed vocal biomarker technology with the ability to spot subtle signs of depression or anxiety that lie in the way we speak. The tool is language agnostic, meaning that the software is trained to spot changes in things like tone, speed and intonation rather than specific words or phrases.
“Our company has created a robust set of models, not looking at what people are saying, but how they’re saying. We don’t care about any of the demographic information or the context of what’s happening because we’re looking at the nuances to speech that machines can pick up,” Chang continued.
Another example lies with Ellipsis Health, which ran an academic, year-long pilot with Menlo College that helped students to measure and manage anxiety and depression symptoms by analyzing their speed using vocal biomarker technology.
In the future, AI may become a more standard fixture in mental care pathways as it has done in other areas of medicine. Acting as an additional safety net for clinics, educational organizations and private practitioners, vocal biomarker technology has the potential to help diagnose and provide ongoing care for depression and anxiety.
Democratizing access to therapy globally
Although choosing to seek help for depression and anxiety may be a hurdle for some, access to professional, affordable support is the next barrier that’s being exacerbated by an increasing prevalence of mental health disorders.
Reports suggest that around 12 billion work days are lost globally every year due to depression and anxiety, putting huge pressure on local mental health services. For example, Europe is battling a surge in demand that overshadows service availability, and in Latin America, six out of every 10 adults with depression aren’t receiving treatment.
As a result, tech developers are aiming to make it easier to access remote sessions from licensed therapists from the safety and privacy of home through online platforms that tailor to specific needs or geographies.
Selia is one of the companies addressing the demand for access to virtual, affordable access to therapy. The founders aim to offer personalized emotional support for their Colombian users with ready, affordable access to over 150 licensed therapists, specialized sessions and emotional coaching and even nutritional advice.
Another example lies with German startup HelloBetter, which aims to help improve people’s mental wellness through virtual consultations. The company recently raised €7M in Series A funding to expand the availability of its services to more people.
While addressing the demand for mental health services still remains, access to remote therapy is one way that technology is helping to ease the burden during the interim.
A new perspective on autoimmune conditions
An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from at least one autoimmune condition. These develop when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the body, causing a wide range of possible conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or celiac disease.
Although autoimmune patients are grappling with a range of often debilitating symptoms, things like fatigue and pain are often “invisible” to other people. As a result, the conditions often bleed into people’s personal life and performance at work, meaning that up to 50% of patients with autoimmune diseases also experience depression and anxiety.
Many autoimmune patients find that looking at nutrition, sleep and stress management can significantly ease the severity of their symptoms. However, implementing and sticking to a lifestyle change is often easier said than done. WellTheory is a membership app that provides ongoing access to specialist coaches, comprehensive lab testing and personalized care plans to help more people take control of autoimmune conditions.
And when it comes to autoimmune conditions like eczema, most sufferers are well aware of how much constant itchy skin can impact mental health. In efforts to improve the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions like eczema are companies like Miiskin. The company leverages AI to improve collaboration between dermatologists and patients with a visual skin-tracking app that allows for continuous care, helping to improve overall health outcomes.
Battling the addiction epidemic
Untreated mental health disorders often lead to substance abuse as a form of self-medication. While proper, long-term mental healthcare will be needed to address the root cause of the problem, getting clean is often the first step on the road to recovery, yet 93.5% of adults with a substance abuse disorder in 2022 did not receive treatment.
Quit Addiction Now offers drug and alcohol rehab options across the U.S. and easy, discreet access to treatment providers that can answer questions and concerns, helping to remove the stigma around addiction. Including residential options, outpatient care, and community resources, the company helps people tackle a range of addictions head-on.
In addition to rehab facilities, the company also creates a lot of free digital content and resources for its patients.
Just as apps have become ubiquitous with helping us manage numerous tasks in our everyday lives, application technology has also developed in recent years to help manage addiction.
Pear Therapeutics’ Pear reSET-O, for example, is an FDA-approved substance abuse treatment app that maps out a 90-day treatment program for the patient on a cellular app. And Sober Tool, an app created by a chemical dependency counselor educated at Harvard, is designed to help patients in moments of craving.
Supporting health and wellbeing with innovation
While many cases of depression and anxiety are mild, it’s important to address any symptoms directly so that symptoms don’t worsen.
An increased awareness of mental health disorders is helping to drive conversations on the topic and encourage people to seek help when needed. Innovative health and wellbeing apps and services that target specific conditions and make it easier to access care will be an integral part of the long-term management of our mental health in the future.