A new frontier in mental health: Technology 

Image of a woman reading her iPad
January 05, 2023

Technology has opened a new frontier in mental health support and data collection. Devices such as smartphones, fitness trackers, and tablets have enabled the shift to digital or virtual healthcare and give the public, doctors and researchers new ways to access help, monitor progress and increase their understanding of mental well-being. As we’ll discuss, there is reason to hope that technology can be harnessed to address two seemingly intractable mental health problems in the US today – suicide and addiction.  

Suicide prevention

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death globally, most notably amongst young people. Suicide prevention is a challenging topic as it involves a complex combination of personal, social and health factors. As health systems, tech companies, and research institutions are exploring how they can help with suicide prevention with everything from safety planning apps, expanded tele-mental health and AI driven triage, machine learning is emerging as a promising solution in identifying the subtle signs of suicide risk and alerting individuals to intervene. We have all been on the receiving end of targeted ads - searched for things, said things aloud or sometimes even simply thought something - and the next day we see that exact product pop up on our feeds. This same technology in tandem with biosensors in your smartphone or wearable devices (i.e. Fitbits) could also be used to track your sleep and mood in real time, factoring in things like your music choices, social media posts, and even vocal and facial expressions. Data would constantly be collected and any unusual or concerning behaviors would be flagged and sent to a clinician who would be able to directly reach out. Privacy in this arena is clearly a concern, but as more data is collected, the application is able to learn and gradually improve its accuracy.


Many tech companies are entering into the health, and specifically behavioral health, space. Verily, a Google spin off, is focused on using technology to better understand health as well as prevent, detect, and manage disease. One of their first fights? The opioid crisis. The drug overdose epidemic continues to worsen in the United States; drug overdose deaths have more than tripled since 1990, and most are caused by opioids. Verily's team of clinicians and healthcare specialists set out to assess the opioid crisis and uncovered a complex set of challenges that touched nearly every facet of our society. One of these issues was the absence of high quality clinical information, which could be used to guide society towards adopting treatment models that support prevention and recovery. Verily is able to not only use their tech-enabled infrastructure to treat patients but also to generate insights that could advance the understanding how to treat and promote recovery while addressing the holistic needs of each individual treated.

The big picture

New technologies are opening many possible avenues to better mental health in this country. But for all the optimism it is generating, there is a also considerable uncertainty about tech-based mental health monitoring and care, as there is little industry regulation and limited information on longer-term effectiveness. We will be watching closely for early indications of success or reasons for concern.

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