Adel Baluch, Clinical Lead, Ada Health, talks about how digital health apps can help people with mental health problems.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, an initiative designed to highlight the importance of mental health and inspire action. With organisations and individuals across the country discussing all aspects of this vitally important topic, it seems like the right time to discuss the role that digital health technologies can play in this issue.
Alongside my work as a family doctor, I am a clinical lead for Ada Health, an AI health startup that helps individuals to manage their health and get guidance on what might be causing their symptoms.
Since we launched Ada in the UK in early 2017 it has become clear that this kind of technology has a vital part to play in helping individuals to get information on their mental health and encouraging those who are suffering to seek out help.
We have had feedback from multiple users that their Ada assessment encouraged them to see their doctor. One user was diagnosed with multiple conditions including bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety, that might otherwise have gone untreated if the app hadn’t given them the confidence to see their GP.
In total during 2017, over 15% of all assessments conducted by Ada users in the UK related to mental health. This figure is pretty consistent with Mental Health Awareness Week’s own data, which asserts that, in any given week, 1 in 6 people will have experienced a common health problem. However, the volume of mental health related assessments did surprise us: as a point of comparison, influenza and the common cold accounted for less than 5% of assessments in the UK during the same period.
All ages affected by mental health issues
Our data shows that mental health concerns are common across all demographics. In the UK in 2017, four of the 10 most common conditions among Ada’s assessments were mental health related. The most common conditions identified by Ada included Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Burn Out (such as low mood or stress), Depressive Episode and Depression In Childhood Or Adolescence.
In fact, “Depressive Episode” was the most common condition suggested by Ada, based on reported symptoms, for a wide range of age groups. This includes UK users aged 18-44 years and, notably, those aged 75 years or older.
Young people most likely to use apps for mental health
Although mental health issues are common across age groups, our data also shows that mental health is a particularly critical issue for younger people, especially young men. In the UK, 18-24 year olds were the age group most likely to use Ada for a mental health related issue: 43% of all mental health related assessments completed using Ada in the UK last year were completed by this group.
Within this group, we saw another trend: more than two thirds of those assessments were conducted by young men. One reason for this could be that young men are more reluctant to speak to a friend, family member or doctor if they have mental health problems, and it is here that health apps can play a vital role.
If people are not comfortable talking about their mental health, or they are not sure if what they are feeling is significant enough to justify making a GP appointment, then a mobile app can make a huge difference by giving individuals reliable, easy-to-understand information and offering guidance about the possible next steps to take.
Healthtech must handle mental health issues responsibly
With so many individuals turning to digital health technologies for support with mental health issues, it is essential that healthtech companies are able to handle these issues sensitively and responsibly.
At Ada, we have adapted our app to incorporate additional reassuring messaging and guidance during the question flow for any mental health related assessments. We have also adapted the app so that if a user or someone they know is having suicidal thoughts, they are immediately encouraged to talk to a trusted friend or relative or a mental health helpline. They are then offered a contact number to call for a support organisation in their country.
We are continuing to build Ada’s abilities to assess the many complexities surrounding mental health and psychiatric conditions, including creating content that will empower people to take steps to manage their mental health and developing the app’s capabilities to connect people with the most appropriate, nuanced solutions for care.
Mental Health Awareness Week is a great initiative because it highlights the importance of something that, as a society, we all need to pay more attention to and talk about more openly. Although technology cannot solve this problem by itself, digital health tools can and should play a major role in educating people about mental health and encouraging them to take the next steps if they are suffering.