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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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The Hidden Benefits of Your Health Insurance Plan
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When we talk about health insurance, it’s usually in the context of a complaint. While it’s true that insurance companies often fight tooth and nail to keep their financial exposure limited, they’re also making moves to offer benefits beyond standard health care—and you might not even know about these perks.

A prime example is the recent trend for companies to offer a discount savings card on groceries. United Healthcare, Humana, and Medica are just a few of the insurers who have issued cards that can be used for an instant price reduction when checking out at participating stores. The catch? The programs typically cover healthy or organic foods. Along with discounted gym memberships, the benefit is an effort to keep policy holders fit and—at least theoretically—to reduce the need for medical interventions.

If you’re surprised to hear about it, you’re not alone. Here are some other programs offered by the nation's largest insurance companies that you might be missing out on. (Bear in mind that each company has various tiers of coverage and not all perks may apply to all levels.)

UNITED HEALTHCARE

The company’s Healthy Savings program for groceries allows shoppers to save on select items that change on a weekly basis. Each Sunday, the cards will recognize between $40 and $50 in deals on healthier grocery options. It’s only good at participating retailers, including Shop ‘n’ Save, Giant, and others. You can search for locations on their website.

Through UnitedHealth Allies, the company also offers discounts on weight loss programs like NutriSystem and Jenny Craig, as well as gym memberships and even active footwear [PDF].

CIGNA

The Northeast-based insurance company provides an umbrella discount service, Healthy Rewards, that offers savings on eye exams and up to 25 percent off alternative health therapies like acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage appointments [PDF]. They also offer fitness membership discounts. More information can be found at MyCigna.com.

AETNA

It’s hard to know what the pending acquisition of Aetna by pharmacy giant CVS will mean for health care perks moving forward. Currently, the company offers discounted memberships and trial passes to more than 10,000 gyms nationally, as well as discounts on home fitness equipment like treadmills [PDF]. You can also find discounts on meal home delivery subscriptions. Logged-in members can go to the Aetna website and select “Health Programs” then “Discounts” to determine your eligibility.

ANTHEM BLUECROSS

In addition to savings on groceries, gym memberships, and weight loss programs, Anthem BlueCross offers savings for members on DNA ancestry kits, pet insurance, and even baby-proofing.

HUMANA

Humana offers an impressive array of “lifestyle discounts” that range from basic wellness perks to teeth whitening, identity theft services, and 15 percent off in-network LASIK procedures. They also offer discounts on over-the-counter medications like Claritin and Advil. You can register at MyHumana.com to find out more.

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Bose
Bose's New 'Sleepbuds' Are Designed to Help You Doze Off Faster
Bose
Bose

If you’re the kind of person who can’t fall asleep without the whir of a fan or some other ambient noise in the background, then Bose has a product for you. As spotted by The Verge, the audio equipment company’s new wireless noise-masking Sleepbuds are designed to fit comfortably into your ears and help you doze off faster.

The Bose sleepbuds
Bose

Unlike other Bose earbuds—and, well, most headphones in general—the Sleepbuds don’t actually play music or allow audio to be streamed from external devices. Instead, they come equipped with 10 soothing audio tracks, including brown noise, rain, ocean waves, a running stream, and more.

The earbuds aren’t noise-canceling, but their audio tracks are specifically engineered to mask certain outside sounds like traffic and, perhaps most impressively, your partner’s snoring. The rechargeable battery lasts for 16 hours, and at just 1 centimeter in width and height, they’re Bose’s tiniest product yet.

For early risers whose partners like to sleep in, the Bose Sleep app can sound off an alarm in your ear that only you can hear. The app can also be used to adjust your sleep settings, including your noise of choice, volume levels, and how long you want the sound to play for.

Bose spent a couple of years developing the product and raised over $450,000 in an Indiegogo campaign to help improve the Sleepbuds by getting backers to test them out and provide feedback. The Sleepbuds are now available for purchase on Amazon for $249.

[h/t The Verge]

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