COVID-19, Mental Health & Technology
Author: Mike S Taylor
How technology can be leveraged in mental health care and combat loneliness during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic This is Jo’Vianni Smith.
Jo’Vianni Smith was an energetic 15-year-old girl described as a “blazing force behind the bat.” A Bear Creek High School student in California, she thrived in softball, basketball and music.
She was “bubbly and loving,” says her mother, Danielle Hunt. “If you met her one time, she made an impact in your life.”
But at the beginning of this past April, Jo’Vianni took her own life.
Hunt believes that her daughter may have had trouble coping with California’s stay-at-home order due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
And Jo’Vianni is not alone — in nearby Natomas, California, educators there say two students have also died.
Her and others’ tragic stories shed light on the catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, particularly due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders. After all, humans are social beings.
“We humans are social beings; we share mirror neurons that allow us to match each other’s emotions unconsciously and immediately. We leak emotions to each other. We anticipate and mirror each other’s movements when we’re in sympathy or agreement with one another — when we’re on the same side. And we can mirror each other’s brain activity when we’re engaged in storytelling and listening — both halves of the communication conundrum.” — Nick Morgan, American speaking coach and author.
While social distancing is important to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, it could worsen problems for the more than one of four adults who say they felt isolated even before the outbreak, and increase the risk of loneliness for others, especially the 35.7 million Americans living alone.
Social isolation and loneliness have been linked to many physical and mental health problems including heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, and depression which could lead to suicide. When we spend quality time with another person, we experience what is called intrinsic joy. Brain scanning studies have shown that subcortical brain regions, such as the ventral striatum, which plays an important role in motivation, are activated when receiving social and monetary rewards.
However, when we feel lonely, brain regions associated with distress are activated instead. This is likely due to evolution, driving us to establish and maintain social connections to ensure survival.
For those who do have a mental health condition, perhaps anxiety, depression or schizophrenia, loneliness can increase the severity of their symptoms. And currently, receiving much relied on in-person treatments are not an option.
Stay-at-home orders are not the only way by which the recent pandemic is affecting mental health. The fear of the virus itself can cause anxiety or stress, particularly for those with OCD like myself. Unemployment, the loss of a loved one, and drastic schedule changes are just a few of the factors that are worsening mental health during this pandemic.
However, we are still extremely lucky. We are lucky because we have the power of technology which can be used in mental health care and combat loneliness during this extremely difficult time.
Technology for Mental Health Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Technology is the key to providing accessible mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it can provide those struggling with self-administered, digital therapeutics that do not require in-person contact.
Virtual Therapy, Chatbots & Social Media
The federal government has recently expanded Medicare coverage of telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who are struggling now have greater access to virtual mental health care, or telemental health.
Online applications like Betterhelp and Talkspace connect people to virtual counseling with licensed therapists with just the tap of a finger.
Talkspace can connect you with a licensed therapist from the palm of your handU.S. states can also assist in increasing telemental health access. New York state is currently building a network of volunteer licensed mental health professionals to offer free counseling to residents. States can additionally use emergency orders to activate additional master’s-level licensed professional counselors, allowing them to treat patients and bill Medicare.
In fact, with artificial intelligence-based applications, those who need help during this time can do so without the need of a licensed therapist.
Woebot is one example of this. Woebot is an AI-based chatbot that provides cognitive behavioral therapy.
Woebot monitors daily, one-on-one interactions with users using natural language processing, the way in which computers can understand the complexity and underlying meaning of human language. Woebot uses this to deliver a personalized version of cognitive behavioral therapy, currently the most effective treatment for mental health problems.
It has been found to be extremely effective in treating depression and other mental health disorders, and is especially fitting given the stay-at-home orders. While social media is often said to cause more anxiety and stress, it can be used as a tool to prevent loneliness during this time as well. Video Games and Virtual Reality
Video games have also been shown to elevate mood and decrease symptoms of depression, allowing users to escape and immerse themselves into another world.
Some video games are even made for the purpose of treating a mental health condition, such as Endeavor by Akili. Endeavor, a video game under relaxed rules, is being rolled out early during the pandemic period to help children with ADHD.
Endeavor by AkiliOne emerging technology that can also help those struggling right now escape and immerse themselves into another world is virtual reality. Virtual reality, or VR for short, is a technology that immerses the user into a 3D simulated experience or environment. One can explore and sometimes even manipulate objects in the environment. A virtual reality system includes a VR-headset, and perhaps other controllers. Similar to other video games, virtual reality systems have been found to be very effective in treating mental health conditions, and are especially helpful while we must stay at home.
“Mental health and the environment are inseparable. The brilliant thing about virtual reality is that you can provide simulations in the environment and have people repeatedly go into them,” — Dr. Daniel Freeman, a University of Oxford psychologist.
Psychiatrist Michelle Craske and her team found that their virtual reality-based treatment was more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy at boosting people’s positive feelings. Participants who went through the positive affect treatment reported lower levels of depression, anxiety and other negative symptoms than their peers in the standard treatment group.
Virtual reality-based therapy has also been shown to help those with psychotic disorders experience less paranoia and anxiety, treat PTSD and reduce social anxiety.
Explore Deep is a meditative virtual reality controlled by breathing. It allows players to navigate through a serene and poetic underwater world. Movement is controlled by slow, deep breathing which soothes and relieves anxiety in the player. It uses a self-explorative, visually stunning underwater seascape and biofeedback mechanics.
Wearable Technology for Mental Health
Author: Mike S Taylor
Wearable technology can also be used for self-administered mental health purposes, with the potential of being more efficient due to its wide demographic reach.
Portable devices are a key tool to detect possible disorders in the first phase. Applications can collect information and evaluate the activity of patients through biomarkers to intervene in time for patients.
One of the many devices is TouchPoint, neuroscientific wearables that are placed on each wrist preventively in the morning or at night to induce the body to calm before going to sleep. It can also be used before, during or after a stressful situation, be it a work meeting or an emotionally complicated conversation.
Additionally, the companies Otsuka America Pharmaceutical and Proteus Digital Health have developed a wearable sensor called Abilify MyCite, used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or as an aid to mitigate depression in adults.
Up to 75% of patients with schizophrenia do not take their medications as prescribed, so to solve this, Abilify MyCite was developed as an ingestible pill with external sensors on a patch that the patient wears on the torso. The pill informs an app installed on the patient’s smartphone about what they need at all times, which can be extremely helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another example is Spire, a wearable device coupled with a smartphone application that tracks your breathing and has been proven to reduce stress. (I have actually used this myself, and I have found it to be very helpful.)
A few other companies to check out if you’re interested:
All in all, we are so lucky to presently have these technologies that we can use for mental health care during COVID-19.
10 years ago, these technologies did not exist. But now, we can leverage them to relieve loneliness, anxiety, depression and stress due to COVID-19. We can prevent suicides like Jo’Vianni’s by helping those struggling gain access to treatments, simultaneously saving lives by containing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255. Help is available.