Technology is fast becoming the saving grace in combating Australia’s growing mental health crisis. With at least six suicides a day, data driven techniques are now becoming critical in mental health care. 
 
Technologies such as wearable devices, apps, electronic medical records and artificial intelligence are harnessing data insights and providing researchers, clinicians and patients with revelations into conditions such as depression and anxiety like never before. 
 
The dramatic growth in the use of data for research analytics, predictive analytics and outcomes analytics is heralding a new age for mental health prevention, detection and treatment, and healthcare providers need to be on the vanguard. 
 
One in five Australians experience mental illness each year, and adopting new digital options can be crucial. This is why The Black Dog Institute has established itself as a leader in e-mental health research, to supercharge the uptake in solutions that complement traditional face-to-face services.
 
Within its pioneering efforts, the Institute’s Living Lab project, in partnership with Mindgardens, aims to establish a virtual laboratory to further precision mental health research and real-world use.
 
Their online information management system, which will integrate several existing datasets, will allow healthcare users, practitioners and researchers to share biopsychosocial and environmental data to identify digital predictors of future affective disorders and psychosis in patients. This ‘digital phenotyping’ will allow for the development of individually targeted prevention interventions.
 
The Living Lab will also act as a hub for research studies that can access a core longitudinal data set and augment it with new data collected via a mobile app.
 
According to the Black Dog Institute, their aim is to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to mental illness, and it represents a stunning advancement in the field.
 
Depression has the third highest burden of all diseases in Australia, standing at 13 per cent and, alarmingly, 54 per cent of people with mental illness do not access any treatment at all. The Institute says “serious problems” in detection and diagnosis can contribute to delayed treatment for those who do seek support. 
 
Its Digital Dog team has been deployed to find more solutions to mental health problems using everyday technologies. The team researches, develops and tests online mobile apps, websites and games to help lower depression, suicide risk and stress. It even investigates how the interpretation of tweets can flag users’ suicidal thinking.
 
Last month, the institute also announced the second phase of the Centre of Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention (CRESP), which brings together world-leading researchers to deliver technologically-supported solutions and suicide intervention strategies within schools, workplaces, online communities, healthcare settings, risky environments, crisis care and aftercare.
 
CRESP Phase 2, which was recently awarded almost $2.5 million from the National Health and Medical Research Council, will take findings from the CRESP 1 project into suicide prevention strategies and leverage technology to overcome barriers and maximise reach across Australia.
 
Researchers will use smartphone and sensor technologies within apps, together with online intervention program trials, to determine suicide risk among people regardless of age, location or socio-economic demography.
 
“The key to effective suicide prevention is to reach everyone,” Black Dog Institute Director and Chief Scientist Professor Helen Christensen said, in announcing the new phase of the project.
 
“Given we cannot simply predict who amongst many will end up taking his or her life, technology holds the key to scaling effective interventions to reach the masses – we must get beyond the smaller-scaled pockets of prevention in order to impact the whole community.”
 
Christensen said it is essential to move beyond projects that only scratch the surface to save more lives.
 
“Technology is the key to scale. We may not have therapists able to deliver effective strategies 24/7, have a safety plan available when needed, monitor every risk in the physical environment, or have enough instructors to teach resilience and mental health prevention to every young person. 
 
“What we do have is an ability to harness technology to reach millions of people to offer an effective public health response.” 
 
She said technology overcomes geographical, economic, cultural and personal barriers that prevent individuals at risk of suicide from receiving the care that they need.
 
“The research from CRESP Phase 2 will help us determine whether technology at scale can reduce suicides in the way evidence suggests it will, with the aim of preventing approximately 20 to 25 per cent of suicides from occurring each year.”
 
The Black Dog Institute’s pioneering efforts are part of a worldwide movement to embrace the promise provided by data to benefit mental health care.
 
In the UK, the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust is piloting a new ‘risk stratification model’ that analyses a wide range of data sources to predict a patient’s likelihood of experiencing a mental health crisis.
 
The project, which aims to help clinicians prevent mental health patients from needing urgent hospital care, uses four years of historical clinical and socio-demographic data drawn from a wide range of sources, as opposed to the limited set of patient characteristics like age, diagnosis and previous hospital admissions generally relied on. 
 
In the groundbreaking pilot, data analysts are working with clinicians and other healthcare providers to refine, test and implement the model into systems for routine clinical care.
 
While in the US, Australia’s Medibio has filed a Food and Drug Administration De Novo submission for its Clinical Decision Support System and Major Depressive Disorder module. 
 
According to the company, its system will provide the infrastructure for clinicians to review biomarker data in the clinical evaluation stages of patient care and assist in the diagnosis, monitoring and management of mental illness. 
 
It also includes a two-way, real-time interface for the sharing of data between clinicians and patients, as well as in remote settings. The system uses an algorithm that baselines the patient at the time of reading and identifies physiological changes in the patient throughout the diagnosis and treatment process.
 
The submission followed a successful 230-person clinical study at eight sites across the US and Australia.
 
Medibio anticipates its Clinical Decision Support System to improve the current diagnostic standard by more than 20 per cent. The company says having objective data can enhance the diagnostic decision by psychiatrists, and will be useful for non-psychiatrists who are increasingly put in the position of making psychiatric diagnosis and starting a treatment plan for patients. 
 
This month, Medibio also released its ilumen corporate wellness platform that allows employers to offer “biometric analysis and objective, data-driven feedback along with a mental wellness assessment to their employees”. Available via the Google and Apple app stores and on the web, the technology integrates with employees’ wearable devices.
 
But these are only the tip of the innovation iceberg.
 
As technologies increasingly glean information on the human condition, and analytics allow vast data sets to be interpreted, the potential for improved mental health care is generating great hope. Healthcare providers need to keep up with the revolution.
 
Find out more about postgraduate study in Mental Health and the Southern Cross University Online Master of Mental Health.
 

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