Developing the Missing Piece in Mental Health Treatment

It is important that mental health professionals and providers look to newer approaches and methods to supplement the current standard of care.

An unprecedented surge in mental health cases brought by the COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the health care system. There are roughly 20,000 mental health apps addressing mental health,1 but despite the introduction and increased use of digital technologies to manage mental health care, nearly one-quarter (24.7%) of all adults with mental illness reported that they were unable to receive necessary treatment.2

Adding salt to the wound, studies show that roughly 23% of users abandon mobile apps after only one use. This implies that a significant number of mental health app users will not stick with portable treatment options.

While there are several facets of the unmet need, such as a lack of available treatment types and shortage of psychiatrists, we can be sure that as long as a significant portion of the population is not receiving care, something must change.

The need for fundamentally different solutions that go beyond digitization is one that has been discussed in detail in the past. The Digital Mental Health Revolution: Transforming Care Through Innovation And Scale-Up report, which includes contributions from Dr. Tom Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, calls for new technologies that combine the best of clinical science and consumer engagement. More specifically, the report implores that mental health care must go back to the essential “active ingredients” and “then use the full capabilities of digital technology and human practitioners to create instantaneous, adaptive and scalable services.”

With this in mind, it is important that mental health professionals and providers look to newer approaches and methods to supplement the current standard of care—pharmacotherapy, or psychotherapy delivered in person or in telehealth mode. In doing so, clinicians will be able to improve outcomes, close the efficacy gap, accelerate care efficiency, and be better positioned to treat patients in need.

Treating Symptoms is Not a Solution

Mental health treatment options today provide a wide array of approaches to cater to different needs. Certain approaches may attempt to target some underlying contributors to mental health issues in an attempt to access underlying issues.

The standard biopsychosocial model takes into consideration the effect of biology, psychology, and environmental contributing factors to the development of mental disorders. While admirable in their efforts to adhere to the biopsychosocial paradigm, current standard of care approaches to treating mental disorder could be further enhanced by addressing several key elements that limit their efficacy.

One such limit is the general absence of information surrounding the mechanism of action of some psychiatric medications. Although some medications are prescribed in a trial-and-error format, deeper understanding of underlying issues may be able to improve this process.

Mental health professionals need all the help they can get to provide better care. By adding new tools and technologies to the mix that—in tandem with current treatment methods—broaden their bandwidth to treat more patients or allow them to provide adequate care faster, we will be better positioned to achieve improved outcomes.

Going Deeper With Brain-Region Specific Biomarkers

An effective way to non-invasively and precisely analyze brain region function is with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Unfortunately, fMRI is not widely available or scalable, as the technology is extremely costly. As a result, therapeutic modalities, such as delivering neurofeedback using fMRI, cannot be practiced on a large scale at clinics.

That being said, recent advances that leverage machine learning to fuse EEG and fMRI spatial data now allow research teams to produce EEG-computed biomarkers supercharged by the fMRI spatial data. This, in turn, allows teams to cost effectively and widely measure significant and revealing brain biomarkers.

Additionally, with such a novel therapeutic modality, patients will be able to experience and even influence real-time treatment progress. With current treatment methods, patients rarely have the opportunity to directly impact their care process beyond great patient effort or adhering to medical regimens.

New solutions working together with fMRI-EEG technology are changing the treatment process. By receiving real-time neurological feedback, patients can see their brain regulation status and consequently make conscious adjustments. By allowing patients to take on more significant roles in their care journeys, they acquire a greater sense of control, which can be both inspiring and promising.

By using brain biomarkers, clinicians may be able to eventually measure pathological bodily processes. In conjunction with current solutions, this greater understanding may increase the ability of predicting clinical outcomes.

Using this approach, providers will be better suited to understand brain regions that are correlated to emotional dysregulation in patients with mental disorders. As a result, more customized treatment options will be available for use, giving clinicians an opportunity to provide more comprehensive care.

New Solutions Make Way for New Outcomes

With patients of varying levels of mental health acuity needing treatment, the time has come to add a new layer to mental health treatment. By introducing new solutions that supplement current therapies and introduce more in-depth understanding of underlying brain regions responsible for mental health dysregulation, clinicians will be better equipped to improve clinical outcomes and allow patients to gain control of their lives.

In speeding up and improving the care process and providing clinicians with a broader set of tools, clinicians will be able to care for more patients and achieve improved clinical outcomes, helping alleviate the current mental health burden. Using agency-based modalities, patients become a part of their own treatment regimen, providing themselves with the opportunity for better care and health care outcomes.

About the Author

Oded Kraft is CEO and co-founder of GrayMatters Health.

References

1. Mental health apps are seeing a surge of downloads — but choosing the right one matters. ECHAlliance. https://echalliance.com/mental-health-apps-are-seeing-a-surge-of-downloads-but-choosing-the-right-one-matters/. October 20, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2022.

2. The State Of Mental Health In America. Mental Health America. https://www.mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america. Accessed May 31, 2022.