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6 Ways Technology Can Help Mental Health Disorders

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Today is World Mental Health Day. Mental health issues affect hundreds of millions of people around the globe; according to the World Health Organization, some 300 million suffer from depression, and another 260 million grapple with anxiety disorders. While researchers haven't developed any breakthrough mental health drugs in nearly three decades, new technological innovations are helping some patients connect with a therapist, get diagnosed, track moods, manage or mitigate symptoms, and stick to treatments. Here are just a sampling of them.

1. APPS FOR EVERYTHING FROM PTSD TO ADDICTION

The "there's an app for that" slogan is now true for the complex world of mental health care. There are thousands. Some apps are targeted at users with specific conditions, such as anxiety, schizophrenia, or depression, and are designed to assuage and manage symptoms, track moods and thoughts, or help individuals stick with treatments. Others are aimed at improving memory, coping, and thinking skills, or managing stress through meditation or mindfulness. There are also apps for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and addiction. The list goes on.

Mental health apps have plenty of benefits, including convenience, anonymity, and a low price. But experts caution prospective users against using them as a stand-in for professional treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Most aren't backed by peer-reviewed research or clinical trials, partially because tech development moves faster than traditional scientific testing. Confidentiality is also a major issue, as many of these apps don't adhere to standard healthcare privacy guidelines.

Yet some preliminary studies have shown that they can yield patient improvements. Vet any app you're considering with a doctor or therapist, focusing on ones that rely on evidence-based treatment such as cognitive behavior therapy. Double-check the app developer's credentials before downloading: The most trustworthy are typically affiliated with academic research institutions or government agencies, according to the American Psychological Association. And choose one with an intuitive interface; it will be easier to stick with, so you might see better outcomes.

To learn more about the pros and cons, visit the NIMH's comprehensive report on the subject.

2. ONE-ON-ONE THERAPY THROUGH VIDEO AND TEXT

With a shortage of mental health professionals in the U.S., online or mobile therapy appears to be a good solution for prospective patients who can't find an available one in their area. It's also promising for those who simply don't have the time or resources for in-person appointments, or are afraid of stigma.

Some services or platforms allow users to connect with therapists via voice or video on a computer or phone. Others are text-based and allow patients to send unlimited messages via their phones, 24/7, for a flat monthly fee.

3. BEHAVIOR TRACKERS THAT MAY INDICATE AN IMPENDING MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS

While some mental health apps are designed to deliver outcomes (an improved mood, lessened anxiety), researchers are also working to harness mobile technology to detect suicidal inclinations, burgeoning manic episodes, or depressive episodes before they manifest.

One such scientist is Dr. Thomas Insel, a psychiatrist and former head of the NIMH. After a stint with Verily, the life sciences unit of Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Insel left the tech giant to co-found a start-up called Mindstrong. Both organizations, he told CNBC, are working on apps that monitor users' smartphone behavior—with permission from the user.

For example, if a user starts typing more rapidly than normal, their syntax changes, or they indulge in impulsive shopping sprees, that might be an indicator that they're manic. If they don't respond to texts from family and friends, they might be depressed. Together, this data collection could create what Insel calls a "digital phenotype," which could be described as a personalized mental health map. This could help users or their loved ones mitigate any potential crises through preventative treatment.

This line of research is promising, but Insel noted that it's still unclear whether the approach will yield long-term outcomes for patients—or if the tech itself is fine-tuned enough to observe behavior changes.

4. SMART SOFTWARE THAT FINDS AT-RISK PATIENTS IN MEDICAL RECORDS

Some insurance companies are now using cloud-based software platforms to review electronic medical records and insurance claims data to identify patients at risk for developing mental health conditions like depression. Then, they connect them with appropriate treatments through a network of behavioral health specialists.

5. VIRTUAL-REALITY TREATMENTS

In addition to treating PTSD with medication, therapy, and exercise, some physicians use a technique called exposure therapy, which is designed to help patients relive trauma-related phenomena in a controlled, safe environment, such as a doctor's office. This helps patients get habituated to the memories so they no longer trigger flashbacks and anxiety. Scientists have tested VR as a tool for exposure therapy in clinical trials, and a handful of clinicians around the U.S. are now trained to use it in their practices.

Headsets whisk patients back in time using a combination of images and sounds. While wearing the headsets, subjects discuss past experiences with therapists until they become desensitized to the triggers before them.

Meanwhile, researchers like Yale scientist Sarah Fineberg are using computer games and VR to understand feelings of social rejection in people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), a complicated condition in which sufferers have a hard time regulating emotions, have a distorted sense of self, and are prone to extreme mood swings, especially towards the people in their lives. 

6. A GOOGLE SCREENING THAT LETS YOU KNOW IF YOU'RE DEPRESSED

Google recently teamed up with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nationwide grassroots mental health advocacy group, to offer a mental health screening questionnaire to U.S. residents who search for "depression" on their mobile phones. The top result is a box called a "knowledge panel," which has information on depression, its symptoms, and potential treatments. To get screened, click the option "Check if you're clinically depressed" to take a confidential, medically backed self-assessment quiz.

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Food
A Pitless Avocado Wants to Keep You Safe From the Dreaded 'Avocado Hand'
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The humble avocado is a deceptively dangerous fruit. Some emergency room doctors have recently reported an uptick in a certain kind of injury—“avocado hand,” a knife injury caused by clumsily trying to get the pit out of an avocado with a knife. There are ways to safely pit an avocado (including the ones likely taught in your local knife skills class, or simply using a spoon), but there’s also another option. You could just buy one that doesn’t have a pit at all, as The Telegraph reports.

British retailer Marks & Spencer has started selling cocktail avocados, a skinny, almost zucchini-like type of avocado that doesn’t have a seed inside. Grown in Spain, they’re hard to find in stores (Marks & Spencer seems to be the only place in the UK to have them), and are only available during the month of December.

The avocados aren’t genetically modified, according to The Independent. They grow naturally from an unpollinated avocado blossom, and their growth is stunted by the lack of seed. Though you may not be able to find them in your local grocery, these “avocaditos” can grow wherever regular-sized Fuerte avocados grow, including Mexico and California, and some specialty producers already sell them in the U.S. Despite the elongated shape, they taste pretty much like any other avocado. But you don’t really need a knife to eat them, since the skin is edible, too.

If you insist on taking your life in your hand and pitting your own full-sized avocado, click here to let us guide you through the process. No one wants to go to the ER over a salad topping, no matter how delicious. Safety first!

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Live Smarter
Why You Should Think Twice About Drinking From Ceramics You Made by Hand
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Ceramic ware is much safer than it used to be (Fiesta ware hasn’t coated its plates in uranium since 1973), but according to NPR, not all new ceramics are free of dangerous chemicals. If you own a mug, bowl, plate, or other ceramic kitchen item baked in an older kiln, it may contain trace amounts of harmful lead.

Earthenware is often coated with a shiny, ceramic glaze. Historically, lead has been used in glazes to give pottery a glossy finish and brighten colors like orange, yellow, and red. The chemical is avoided by potters today, but it can still show up in handmade dishware baked in older kilns that contain lead residue. Antique products from the era when lead was a common crafting material may also be unsafe to eat or drink from. This is especially true when consuming something acidic, like coffee, which can cause any lead hiding in the glaze to leach out.

Sometimes the amount of lead in a product is minuscule, but even trace amounts can contaminate whatever you're eating or drinking. Over time, exposure to lead in small doses can lead to heightened blood pressure, lowered kidney function, and reproductive issues. Lead can cause even more serious problems in kids, including slowed physical and mental development.

As the dangers of even small amounts of lead have become more widely known, the ceramics industry has gradually eliminated the additive from its products. Most of the big-name commercial ceramic brands, like Crock-Pot and Fiesta ware, have cut it out all together. Independent artisans have also moved away from working with the ingredient, but there are still some manufacturers, especially abroad, that use it. Luckily, the FDA keeps a list of the ceramic ware it tests that has been shown to contain lead.

If you’re not ready to retire your hand-crafted ceramic plates, the FDA offers one possible solution: Purchase a home lead testing kit and analyze the items yourself. If the tests come back negative, your homemade dishware can keep its spot on your dinner table.

[h/t NPR]

This piece was updated to clarify that while lead may be present in antique ceramics and old kilns, it's no longer a common ingredient in ceramic glazes.

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