Augmenting Our Mental Health

This week I had the privilege of joining some of the country’s foremost mental health practitioners at Mayden’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT Connect 2017) conference to hear about the latest trends and practice in this increasingly high profile area. There were the leading lights in commissioning, delivery and policy, from both the adult and children and young people (CYP) spheres of mental health.

As a layman, it was both enlightening and humbling to meet the people at the sharp end of what many describe as a ‘Cinderella Service.’ There were of course harrowing stories from the perspective of mental health service users and those who treat them.

But what really struck me was how forward looking the delegates were in terms of technology. Doing a fair amount of work in the field of Artificial Intelligence currently, I must admit I was not expecting AI and augmented reality to be on the agenda of those working with mental health patients. But what do I know, apparently!

This part of our nation’s health service isn’t bogged down in the common debates on pay, staffing, budgets, and reform (though they had all of course read Simon Stevens’ Five Year Forward View). They were instead passionately focused on wielding the technology at our disposal to manage people’s conditions in new ways.

Chaise longue are old hat in psychology now, Minecraft and Pokémon Go are in. I’m not being facetious, gaming is now a genuine, credible avenue for exploring new approaches to mental health. We were shown a fascinating example of a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) programme that gives the user an avatar to interact with issues in a fantasy world which allows them to overcome their personal challenges in a safe space. But this wasn’t about replacing human interaction with gadgets and games, nor was it about working with more patients using less people. It was about using tools to augment/complement the work of more conventional face-to-face therapy.

We heard of a case of an individual with acute autism who could not cross bridges, but practicing on a Virtual Reality version allowed them to overcome their fear. Crossing a bridge may sound trivial to you and I, but to this individual it was life changing. Another touching case was of children who would struggle to leave their houses due to crippling anxiety, who then found a new lease for the outdoors at the prospect of rounding up a 100+ Pokémon.

What became an increasingly clear part of the picture was that these strides had come partly due to the new generation of professionals entering the sector. Not only were they new, enthusiastic and un-jaded, many were of a millennial generation who have grown up with computing, apps, ‘tech’, as part of their daily lives. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that they are exploring ways to use that tech to do their jobs differently and better.

It seems that our other public services may have a lot to learn from Cinderella.

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