Mental health issues and disorders are rife among the youth, and while some may be averse to more traditional solutions, technology has made therapy more accessible.
Technology to support youth living with a psychological disorder are widely available and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has developed guidelines for adolescent mental health, which include advice for organisations to exploit technology to provide suitable interventions.
These come in several forms and provide both benefits and challenges:
Telemedicine is a technological approach with a potential to increase adolescent access to mental health professionals, especially in rural areas around the world. It is also a promising technology for people who do not have the time or money for face-to-face appointments, as well as those who are afraid of the stigma.
The technology may be used to provide psychiatric services including consultations, diagnoses, therapy, patient education, and medication management.
However, there is still minimal evidence for the effectiveness of telemedicine in diagnosing or treating mental health in youth. There is also doubt about its effectiveness in emergencies and its ability to create a personal and empathetic space.
Phone apps have the potential to improve the quality of and accessibility to mental health services, and in recent years, the number of mental-health-focused apps has increased dramatically.
These help with self-management, therapy, diagnosis, training, and counselling and are inexpensive – offering several benefits such as anonymity and convenience. However, some mental health apps provide non evidence-based interventions, and there is a lack of evidence to support their effectiveness for young users.
Wearables are used to monitor mental states and detect early signs of relapse by continuously collecting biometrics such as heart rate, breaths, body temperature, physical activity, speech, movement, and sleep patterns.
They are typically based on sensors embedded in smartphones, wristwatches, earrings, rings, glasses, clothing, and mobile devices. Sensors can include microphones, touch screens, cameras, accelerometers, altimeters, gyroscopes, thermometers, or electromyography devices.
Wearables utilise objective and continuous data; are usually comfortable for patients; can assess different biometrics, and are affordable and widely available. However, wearables are problematic in that acquired data need expensive storage and sophisticated analysis tools to extract useful information.
Artificial intelligence (AI) methods are used to build models that can detect those who are at high risk of mental disorders and therapeutic responses.
In 2017, Facebook launched an ambitious initiative to prevent suicide through AI. Predictive analytics are used to recognise a pattern of suicidal thoughts based on social media posts to develop a model for people at increased risk for suicide, which would then send resources and contact them to intervene effectively in time.
The main challenge of conducting predictive analytics in mental health is the unique, multivariate, and multimodal nature of mental disorders, where countless variables on several levels are required to build a predictive model for an aspect of a mental disorder.
There is also a major problem of usage of personal data without consent, the lack of transparency for validating the algorithms, and the problem of false-positive and false-negatives in detecting conditions.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have great potential to understand, assess, and treat adolescent mental health problems. VR immerses users in a computer-generated interactive world whereas AR merges computer-generated stimuli and the real world.
Patients are gradually exposed to different situations in a reproducible and controllable way, and are trained to deal with them based on evidence-based psychological interventions. VR and AR are considered safe and affordable alternatives to impractical, risky, and expensive interventions.
These technologies can be used to manage people with phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorders, psychotic and anxiety disorders. Although the effectiveness of VR in treating adults with mental health problems was highlighted in many studies, much work is needed to measure their effectiveness for adolescents with the same conditions.
VA and AR may cause side effects for those with panic attacks, heart disease, and epilepsy.
ICT has the potential to address stigma and social isolation in youth with mental disorders as well as the inaccessibility of mental health services through online platforms.
Those suffering with mental health issues can utilise social media to express their feelings, thoughts, and experiences in seeking advice and support for each other.
A survey showed that adolescents with mental disorders are more likely to convey their personal opinions through blogging and online friendships. Still, serious games are a common source of cyberbullying among the youth and there are risks of receiving unreliable and harmful advice from peers.
Social media users can also become overly reliant on online friendships, which dissuades communication in offline environments.
Serious games are those that offer more than pure entertainment and can be used for therapeutic mental health interventions.
Traditional therapy in the form of conversations, questionnaires, and observations is often perceived as inconvenient as adolescents generally struggle to communicate their feelings, thoughts, and emotions due to developmental constraints. Paradoxically, studies have also highlighted the use of serious games and technologies as a cause for mental health issues due to their addictive nature.
Digital tools offer vast potential to improve adolescent mental health. However, much of the research within this domain lacks scientific rigour and more work is needed to establish an evidence-based functionality within clinical practice.
Furthermore, using digital tools for adolescent mental health can create a digital divide where those who cannot use or do not have access to digital tools will not benefit.
Dr. Alaa Abdel-Razaq and Dr. Arfan Ahmed are post-doctoral fellows of health informatics at the College of Science and Engineering at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, and Dr. Mowafa Househ is an associate professor at the college.
This article is submitted on behalf of the authors by the HBKU Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the university’s official stance.