This article is published in collaboration with Scientific American.
Though the mental health of people across the globe suffered greatly in 2020, there is reason for cautious optimism.
COVID-19’s effects on our collective and individual wellbeing forced the world to confront mental health challenges like never before, and innovative thinkers have stepped up to the challenge.
From diverse fields, they have brought solutions to a problem that once looked intractable. In an effort to highlight these exciting developments, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Mental Health partnered with Scientific American to select the ten innovations doing the most to create a better world for everyone suffering from mental ill-health.
Novel drug therapies for treatment-resistant depression
Depression affects more than 264 million people of all ages globally. When it comes to treatment, approximately one third of those suffering from depression do not respond to two or more antidepressants and are considered treatment resistant. But recent scientific advances have led to the development of novel antidepressants working via completely different mechanisms.
Based on this research, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency have approved esketamine, a chemical related to the aesthetic and club drug ketamine, for treatment-resistant depression. Agency approvals open up the possibility of developing the next generation of treatments in this class.
Telehealth and community-based mental healthcare during COVID-19
Digital care options through teletherapy and all manner of new apps have seen explosive growth during the pandemic. Online services reach the most remote regions and circumvent fears of stigma for making the decision to seek treatment. They can effectively extend the capacity of health and social services. Public and private sectors in several countries have developed online mental health support and services such as Togetherall, ReachOut, 7 Cups and UCLA STAND, often co-designed and advised by community peers, that have become trusted sources of help and referral for young people, their families and others in distress and coping with mental ill-health.
Data from social media to spot trends and prevent self-harm
Globally, more than four billion people use social media, generating huge stores of data from their devices. A growing number of studies show that language patterns and images in posts can reveal and predict mental health conditions for individuals and evaluate mental health trends across entire populations. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, natural language processing and other data science tools, researchers, tech companies, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations can make use of these gargantuan databases to look for signs of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and suicide risk.
Psychedelics to assist the treatment of psychiatric disorders
The use of psychedelics, especially psilocybin and MDMA, is undergoing a renaissance. Recent studies have reignited the hope that psychedelics could be powerful medicines for mental disorders. Patients with disorders like MDD and PTSD can certainly use innovative, effective, and safe treatments. Less than half of people with these disorders respond to medications or psychotherapy, and about a third of MDD patients have so-called “treatment refractory” depression that fails to respond at all. Discovering new approaches to treat mental health conditions is critical. If psychedelics prove to be effective and safe for these disorders, they could prove transformative.
Digital devices to revolutionize how research is done
Today we can leverage smart phones and wearables to create more representative data pools of our global population than studies done with WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) research participants—in other words, typical U.S. college students. Such data have already proved invaluable in bridging dozens if not hundreds of research gaps by collecting real-world, “ecologically valid” information from people in their natural day-to-day lives rather than in the artificial environment of a typical lab. Further, the information can help us bring objective, quantitative data down the line to psychology and psychiatry researchers.
Digital tools to train providers and fill gaps in mental healthcare
An estimated 4 out of 5 people with mental disorders in low- and middle-income countries do not receive any form of mental health care. Poor awareness around the availability of mental health treatments combined with small mental health budgets allocated to the care of a small number of people in mental hospitals contributes to this outcome. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the extraordinary demand for mental health and psychosocial support across affected communities and reinforced the ways in which digital technologies are now intertwined in our lives. Digital tools can be used effectively for supervision and quality assurance of psychological interventions at scale.
Online education programmes on good mental health practices
One of the most effective ways of implementing mental health education is through active school systems. We currently live in a hyper connected world where the future of learning will consist of a combination of digital and hybrid models (online and offline). The addition of technology and digitization will ensure higher personalization, active participation, and the ability to scale at affordable costs. Through public-private partnerships, collaborations with technology and social media companies, having celebrities or social icons endorse these projects, we can truly create a revolution in mental health education for teens.
New workforce models to keep employees mentally well
While the idea of research for workplace wellbeing and combating ill-health is hardly new, how organisations and researchers best engage in its implementation remains to be understood. How research and evaluations are structured, deployed, and partnered is an area primed for innovation. And, in the context of business, there is an equal opportunity to treat research with the same acumen and rigor as business performance or product strategy. These efforts are made even more powerful when private organizations willingly pool their findings and share their data with public-sector entities – what works in one company will very likely be effective in similar organizations. Models such as this are beginning to pan out.
Predictive analytics to guide mental health policy
Until recently, population mental health research has been dominated by backward-focused examinations of past events with little capability to analytically anticipate and strategically shape future trajectories. The course is now altering. Over the past 12 months, a series of models of the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on mental health have been developed that simulated trajectories of psychological distress, mental health service waiting times, mental health-related hospital presentations, and suicide over the next 5 years. These simulations helped identify where the most timely and effective investments lie, informed public discourse, and prompted substantial investment in mental health and suicide prevention.
Digital marketplaces to ensure quality mental health solutions
More than 10,000 apps in the Apple and Google Play stores claim to treat psychological difficulties, and the list doesn’t stop with downloads for your smartphone. With the huge variety of solutions has come a set of quality-control problems: Which digital tools have been designed based on the best clinical evidence, and which have been tested to ensure that they provide substantive benefit to patients? This is where the power of “soft standards” and regulation comes into play: several organizations, such as OneMind, Health Navigator and the World Economic Forum, have begun developing assessment criteria for digital mental-health tools. These measurements will allow innovators to receive a stamp of approval that a product is clinically validated, ethical, secure and effective.
What is the Forum doing to ensure the safety of digital mental healthcare?
New ethical questions about the safety, efficacy, equity and sustainability of digital mental healthcare – online and through apps – are being raised around the world, and businesses are being held to account over their creation and endorsement of services.
The Global Governance Toolkit for Digital Mental Health, launched by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte, provides governments, regulators and companies with the tools to protect personal data, ensure high quality of service and address safety concerns with the rise in digital and behavioural mental healthcare.
Businesses can join the World Economic Forum to shape the future of mental health technologies responsibly, via the Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare.
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