Why mental-health tech must ally with academia

Multiple times per week, our patients ask us where technology might play a role in their care — from apps that they’ve downloaded on their phones for depression to virtual reality-based games for help with their addictions.

Our field — mental health — is waiting for academia and industry to enter a relationship — and to do so ASAP, as it might be the best match any medical field has yet seen.

As psychiatrists, we admit that mental health needs to catch up.

Other areas of medicine, including cancer immunology and HIV, have already seen prime examples of large-scale academic-industry collaborations. Google and Stanford Medicine, for example, have teamed up to create something called the Clinical Genomics Service. The service will allow Stanford clinicians and researchers to explore huge data sets like genomic sequencing to take better care of patients and transform research capabilities– something they could not have done without Google’s high power technologies and data science.

A similar collaboration in the mental health space would hold even greater opportunities for business success and scalable impact for tech companies. This could finally mean societal-level improvements to mental health as new, high-quality tools are infused into the population to support the help that right now is mostly limited to the health sector.

Here’s why collaboration is critical:

1. A cross-sector problem needs a cross-sector solution

Unlike many other illnesses, mental health affects multiple domains, and solving this type of a problem lends itself to a cross-sector approach.

Mental illness and morbidity occurs because of multiple contributing factors like policy dictating what kind of mental health services are covered, genetics increasing the predisposition to disease, or growing up in an environment with stress.

Moreover, the illness itself has multiple impacts. Depression, for example, affects not only mood, it also affects relationships, ability to be productive at work, ability to enjoy activities, concentrate on studying, stay active, or ability to care for one’s physical health.

2. We need each other’s expertise

Unlike other fields where lab values or testing often yields black-and-white results, mental health currently relies heavily on subjective accounts and observations, making the data difficult to codify. This is the kind of challenge technology could help to tackle.

Meanwhile, many consumer tech companies are building products based on trial and error that often don’t target the right problems. They need the insights that academia and the clinical world gain from being first-line on patient care.

Coupling innovative tech from industry with insights from the clinical world and academia could address both of these issues.

3. The scale of the problem demands collaboration

As most people who have tried to find a psychiatrist or therapist know, the number of providers is nowhere close to the number of people who need their help. As a result, there are long wait times to get treatment and treatment is expensive. With 50 percent of people in the US experiencing a mental health condition in their lifetime, catching up is, in part, a numbers game.

The space is wide open for industry to extend the reach of what is already available in the clinical world — as long as the two complement each other. Clinicians alone, practicing in the current one-at-a-time model, cannot meet the demand. We need tools that have the ability to scale to reach the people suffering in silence, and these need to be designed for maximal effectiveness.

4. Tech can help circumvent the stigma barrier

Many people with mental illness never step foot into a physician’s office. Most people do engage with technology. Mental health experts and academia can use the high user engagement levels to circumvent the stigma barrier and meet people where they are to provide them with the tools they need.

The concept of meeting people where they are is well-known within psychiatry. It’s about piggy-backing off of something that works.

There undoubtedly have been long-standing barriers to collaboration such as competition, seemingly misaligned incentives, or lack of a common language between academia and industry. It’s important to keep in mind the end purpose — the people that we are looking to serve.

The best places for academia-industry collaborations to start are in idea generation and solution design, exploring use cases and integration with health systems and insurers, and testing and validating products. It’s an iterative process — one ripe for frequent, collaborative touch points between teammates working across sectors to move mental health forward.

Neha Chaudhary, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She is a co-founder of Brainstorm, Stanford’s Lab for Brain Health Innovation and Entrepreneurship and is on the APA’s Committee on Innovation. She consults to tech companies and providers including AC Wellness.

Nina Vasan, MD is a psychiatrist and Assistant Clinical Professor at Stanford School of Medicine. She is a co-founder of Brainstorm and Chair of the APA’s Committee on Innovation. She consults to tech companies and providers including AC Wellness. 

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