Imagine my surprise to learn that tech companies are now doing what so many of our public institutions aren’t, and devising possible solutions to assorted mental health problems. Stat reported (in their Business section) that now:
with an influx of funding, companies are revamping pills with digital sensors, designing virtual reality worlds to treat addiction and other conditions, and building chatbots for interactive therapy.
But are these techno-wonders likely to be any help? Let’s take the innovations in reverse order, shall we?
Chatbots. We already have remote counselors, which may be a godsend for people with no access to mental health clinics (although they charge a fee, which may be prohibitive for some). I’ve never investigated this service, so maybe some of you who have can tell me how they work and how well.
Remote counselors rely on already existing technology, however, and are therefore not of interest to tech innovators (or potential funders). Chatbots are something else. They are, essentially, computers that respond to human input with output that is supposed to simulate human responses.
To my knowledge, no computer has ever passed the “Turing Test,” which means that a person has no idea whether they’re chatting with a real person or a computer. A psych computer is likely to respond with generic responses such as, “Why do you feel angry with your sister?” “What do you mean when you say anxiety?” “Explain how depression affects you,” and “Tell me more about your mother.” The supposed AI is in no way trained in psychology or any therapeutic techniques.
One company that received funding for “telepsychiatry” (called Regroup Therapy and Woebot Labs) brands their idea as “Your charming robot friend who is ready to listen, 24/7.” Admittedly, many persons with mental health issues need someone who’ll listen, but that’s far from all they need.
Virtual reality for addiction (and other conditions). Startup Limbix wants to sell its programs to therapists and clinics. According to Stat,
Among the company’s VR programs is an exposure therapy for patients with phobias or trauma associated with driving. While patients strap on the headset, clinicians can work with them to introduce different conditions (a clear or rainy day) or different road situations (a bridge or a tunnel or blind left turns).
This sounds promising, though the cost of VR headsets and the programming for various conditions again might be prohibitive for your average community or campus or rural mental health clinic. I’m not clear on how it would work for addiction, unless combined with aversion therapy, which is generally brutal.
Pills with digital sensors. Aren’t psychotropic medications already too expensive, especially for people who have no insurance? Now we need technological pills that must make a profit for both drug and tech companies?
And what a pill they’re talking about. Basically, it’s a pill that rats you out if you don’t take it, or rather alerts your doctor when you do take it. Presumably, your doctor has enough staff to monitor whether clients take the pills and record it if they don’t. Then what? A robocall telling you to take your meds? A visit from a social worker?
Admittedly, such low-jacked pills might have a place in situations where schizophrenics are court-ordered to take their medication, but again there is the problem of what to do about non-compliance.
Another company plans to sell “a cardiac drug meant to be popped like a mint to people anxious about public speaking and first dates.” Would people need prescriptions for those, or will they be dispensed like Tic-Tacs? Even anti-anxiety drugs aren’t meant to be “popped like a mint.” And a cardiac drug? I can’t see any possible downside there.
If only the ingenuity and investment that goes into these products were instead available to fund and repair the shaky mental health system instead. What we need are more psychiatrists and therapists, more hospital beds for psych patients, less expensive drugs, better insurance, more education for the public about mental illness, and an end to stigma.
But those would require systemic reform and political backing, not just some new-fangled gadget. And good luck getting investors for those.