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.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

10 Things You Should Know About Asthma

iStock.com/Wojciech Kozielczyk
iStock.com/Wojciech Kozielczyk

To anyone with asthma, the feeling of an attack is unmistakable. Patients have compared an asthma attack's feeling of breathlessness, caused by inflammation in the lungs and airways, to being smothered by a pillow or having an elephant sit on their chest. Medical experts have already figured out some aspects of asthma, like how to diagnose and treat it, but other components, like what causes asthma and how to cure it, remain unclear. From the triggers people encounter at work to the connection to allergies, here are some facts about asthma symptoms and treatments you should know.

1. Asthma attacks are related to allergies.

The physical process that occurs when someone has a sneezing fit during pollen season is similar to what happens during an asthma attack. But while the former causes discomfort, the latter produces potentially life-threatening symptoms. When people with allergies are exposed to an allergen like pollen, they produce antibodies that bind to that allergen. This signals the body to release the chemicals that cause allergic symptoms. In most people, the symptoms are limited to the head, such as a runny nose or watery eyes, but in people with asthma, they're felt in the lungs. If the lungs are inflamed, the airways that carry air swell up and fill with mucus, constricting airflow and causing common asthma symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Such asthma attacks can be fatal when patients can’t get enough air to their lungs.

2. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic disease among children.

Asthma is common, affecting 25 million in the U.S. alone, and of those patients, about 7 million are children. Most people with the disease develop it during childhood. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic illness among kids, and each year, students miss 13.8 million school days because of it.

3. Asthma may be inherited.

Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes asthma, but they know it sometimes runs in families. A 2010 study found that people with one parent with the condition were nearly twice as likely to have it themselves, and people with a parent and a grandparent with asthma were four times more likely to develop it. Because asthma is connected to allergies, a genetic disposition toward allergies, known as atopy, may explain some inherited asthma cases.

4. Asthma is surprisingly easy to diagnose.

One of the simplest ways to diagnose asthma is through a lung function test. If a patient is reporting asthma symptoms (coughing, chest tightness, a feeling of not getting enough air), their doctor may check the strength of their exhalations before and after having them use an inhaler. If their breathing improves with the medicine, they likely have asthma. An X-ray of the patient’s chest can also be used to reach an asthma diagnosis.

5. Kids who grow up around germs are less likely to have asthma.

A person’s environment early in life may also play a role in whether or not they develop asthma. People who grew up in rural areas, around animals, and in large families are less likely to have asthma than those who did not. One possible explanation is the hygiene hypothesis: According to this theory, kids who were exposed to germs and pathogens while their immune systems were developing are better equipped to deal with allergens, while kids who were sheltered from germs may be more likely to have an exaggerated (and in the case of asthma, potentially deadly) immune response to harmless substances. The hygiene hypothesis hasn’t been proven, however, and it’s definitely not an excuse to expose children to infections in an attempt to strengthen them against asthma attacks in the future.

6. Asthma triggers are everywhere.

To manage their symptoms, doctors tell asthma patients to limit exposure to their triggers when possible. Common asthma triggers include irritants and allergens like dust, tobacco smoke, car exhaust, mold, pet dander, and smoke from burning wood. Triggers that don’t come from the environment, like colds, sinus infections, acid reflux, and hyperventilation brought on by stress, can be even harder to avoid.

7. There's one asthma trigger patients shouldn't avoid.

Physical activity causes fast breathing, which can provoke asthma attacks in some people with the condition. There’s even a type of asthma called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction that specifically describes people who suffer from these kinds of attacks. But the risks of living a sedentary lifestyle outweigh those of exercising carefully, even with asthma. Instead of cutting out cardio altogether, doctors work with patients to come up with an exercise plan that’s safe for them. This might include warming up and using an inhaler before working out, practicing cool-down activities afterward, and wearing scarves or masks to limit exposure to irritants that may also trigger asthma symptoms.

8. There are two types of asthma treatments.

Long-term controllers and quick-relievers are the two types of medications used to treat asthma. Immediate medicines like short-acting beta agonists and anticholinergics relax muscles in the airways when flare-ups occur, and they’re typically administered directly to the lungs with an inhaler. Long-term medications help keep asthma symptoms under control over time are taken as often as once a day, regardless of whether symptoms are present. They include inhaled long-acting beta agonists and corticosteroids, biologic injections, and theophylline and leukotriene modifier pills and liquids. All of these medications suppress asthma symptoms by either relaxing muscles, reducing swelling, or preventing inflammation in the airways.

9. Asthma can be an occupational hazard.

Occupational asthma develops when a patient’s triggers come from their work environment. According to the National Institutes of Health, wood dust, grain dust, animal dander, fungi, and various chemicals are some of the most common asthma triggers that patients encounter in the workplace. Bakers, farmers, laboratory workers, millers, and woodworkers predisposed to asthma are all at higher risk.

10. There's no cure for asthma, but symptoms can lessen over time.

Though asthma is treatable, there’s no cure for the chronic illness. Some people, however, do appear to grow out of the condition after suffering from it as kids. It’s possible for asthma symptoms to become less severe and go into remission as patients get older, but once someone is diagnosed with asthma, the risk of an episode never goes away completely. Changes in hormone levels are a factor that could possibly bring asthma symptoms back in patients who haven’t experienced an attack in years.

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