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.

How Microwaving Food Affects Its Nutritional Value

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iStock/grzymkiewicz

There’s probably no household appliance that sees more use than a microwave. For people who don’t have the time or inclination to prepare dinners from scratch or heat meals in a conventional oven, zapping food has become the ultimate method of time management in the kitchen.

Some people harbor the belief that a price has to be paid for that convenience—specifically, that food loses nutritional value by being subjected to a quick nuking.

The truth? Microwaving doesn’t harm a food’s nutrients. In fact, it may preserve them more than some slow-cook methods do.

The reason is found in how microwaves work. The appliances heat food by blasting it with waves of energy not unlike radio waves. These waves target water and other molecules in the food. Thermal energy quickly builds up, and dishes come out heated in a relatively short period of time. This process avoids two of the factors that can lead to nutrient loss: cooking duration and high temperatures. Typically, the longer and hotter food is cooked, the more its nutritional value dissipates.

The other advantage is that microwaves don’t require water for heating. If you boil broccoli, for example, the hot water allows nutrients to leach out of the vegetable. (While that makes for a good stock, your broccoli may be robbed of some of its healthy benefits.) A quick steam in the microwave leaves broccoli relatively intact.

That’s not to say that microwave cooking is superior to a stovetop. Cooking foods at reasonable temperatures and durations shouldn’t result in significant nutrient loss, though some is inevitable for any manner of cooking. But microwaving isn’t going to erase nutrients via some mysterious microwave alchemy, either.

[h/t CNN]

12 Facts About Fibromyalgia

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iStock.com/spukkato

To people living with fibromyalgia, the symptoms are all too real. Muscle tenderness, full-body pain, and brain fog make it hard to function—and getting a restful night’s sleep isn’t much easier. To the frustration of patients, other aspects of the chronic condition—such as what causes it, how to diagnose it, and how to treat it—are more of a mystery. But after decades of rampant misconceptions, we know more facts about fibromyalgia than ever before.

1. SYMPTOMS FEEL DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia can vary widely. The defining characteristic of the condition is widespread pain, or pain felt throughout the entire body, but how often this pain occurs and how intensely it’s felt is different in each patient. Some people may feel pain reminiscent of a sunburn, a pins-and-needle sensation, sharp stabbing, or some combination of the above. Beyond pain, the condition can come with fatigue, disrupted sleep, depression and anxiety, and trouble focusing (known as “fibro fog").

2. IT AFFECTS MOSTLY WOMEN.

Most fibromyalgia patients are female, making it more prevalent in women than breast cancer. Not only are women more likely to have fibromyalgia than men, but they report experiencing the symptoms more acutely as well. Researchers still aren’t sure why the condition has a disproportionate impact on women, but they speculate that because the diagnosis is most common during a woman's fertile years, it may have something to do with estrogen levels. Some experts also suspect that the condition may be under-diagnosed in men because it’s often labeled a woman’s problem.

3. IT’S RARE.

Though it has gained visibility in recent years, your chances of experiencing fibromyalgia are still slim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects roughly 4 million adults in the U.S., or 2 percent of the population. Fibromyalgia’s similarity to other mysterious conditions also means it is likely overdiagnosed, so that number may be even lower.

4. MOST PEOPLE GET IT IN MIDDLE AGE.

People who have fibromyalgia tend to develop it well into adulthood. The condition is most common in 30- to 50-year-olds, but people of all ages—including children and seniors—can have it. Fibromyalgia in patients 10 and younger, also called juvenile fibromyalgia, often goes unrecognized.

5. IT’S HARD TO DIAGNOSE.

There’s no one medical test that you can take to confirm you have fibromyalgia. Instead, doctors diagnosis patients who exhibit the condition’s most common symptoms—widespread pain, fatigue, trouble sleeping, and muscle tenderness in certain points on the body—by process of elimination. Polymyalgia rheumatica and hypothyroidism (or an underactive thyroid gland) provoke similar symptoms, and both show up in blood tests. Doctors will usually tests for these conditions and others before diagnosing a person with fibromyalgia.

6. THE NAME IS RELATIVELY NEW.

People have suffered from fibromyalgia for centuries, but it received its official name only a few decades ago. In 1976, the word fibromyalgia was coined to describe the condition, with fibro coming from fibrous tissue, myo from the Greek word for muscle, and algia from the Greek word for pain. The name replaced fibrositis, which was used when doctors incorrectly believed that fibromyalgia was caused by inflammation (which -itis is used to denote).

7. IT MAY BE ASSOCIATED WITH PTSD.

Health experts have long known that post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest in physical symptoms—now they suspect the disorder is sometimes connected to fibromyalgia. According to a study published in the European Journal of Pain in 2017, 49 percent of 154 female fibromyalgia patients had experienced at least one traumatic event in childhood, and 26 percent had been diagnosed with PTSD. Researchers also saw a correlation between trauma and the intensity of the condition, with subjects with PTSD experiencing more and worse fibromyalgia pain than those without it.

8. IT’S NOT “ALL IN YOUR HEAD.”

As is the case with many invisible illnesses, fibromyalgia patients are often told their symptoms are purely psychological. But findings from a 2013 study suggested what many sufferers already knew: Their pain is more than just a product of mental distress or an overactive imagination. The small study, published in the journal Pain Medicine, found extra sensory nerve fibers around certain blood vessel structures in the hands of 18 of 24 female fibromyalgia patients compared to 14 of 23 controls. The study proposed that the nerve endings—once thought to merely regulate blood flow—may also be able to perceive pain, an idea that could help dispel a harmful myth surrounding the condition.

9. IT’S CONNECTED TO ARTHRITIS, CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME, AND IBS.

For many patients, fibromyalgia isn’t the only chronic condition they suffer from. Fibromyalgia has been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep apnea, migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, and other medical problems. In some cases, as with chronic fatigue syndrome, the two conditions have such similar symptoms that their diagnostic criteria overlaps. Others conditions like irritable bowel syndrome are related to fibromyalgia—not confused with it.

10. IT'S PROBABLY NOT GENETIC—BUT IT CAN CLUSTER IN THE FAMILIES.

If you're closely related to someone with fibromyalgia, you're more likely to have it yourself. Studies have shown that the diagnosis tends to cluster in families. At first this seems to suggest that the condition is genetic, but scientists have yet to identify a specific gene that's directly responsible for fibromyalgia. The more likely explanation for the trend is that members of the same family experience the same environmental stressors that can trigger the symptoms, or they share genes that are indirectly related to the issue.

11. ANTIDEPRESSANTS CAN HELP ...

Since we don't know what causes fibromyalgia, it's hard to treat. But patients are often prescribed antidepressants to ease their symptoms. These medications have been shown to alleviate some of the most debilitating hallmarks of the condition, such as general pain and restless nights. Doctors who support antidepressants as a fibromyalgia treatment are quick to note that that doesn’t make the condition a mental disorder. While these drugs can lift the depressed moods that sometimes come with fibromyalgia, they also function as painkillers.

12. ... AND SO CAN EXERCISE.

One of the most common pieces of advice fibromyalgia patients get from doctors is to exercise. Hitting the gym may seem impossible for people in too much pain to get off the couch, but physical activity—even in small doses—can actually alleviate pain over time. It also works as treatment for other fibromyalgia symptoms like depression and fatigue.

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