Reports  |  ,   |  June 1, 2019

Empowering 8 Billion Minds: Enabling Better Mental Health for All via the Ethical Adoption of Technologies

Report published by the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Neurotechnologies. 28 pages.

This report highlights the role technology is now playing in helping to address mental health concerns, mapping the areas for special focus and highlighting the ethical considerations for governments, policy makers and health leaders. The Council urges governments, policy-makers, business leaders and practitioners to address the barriers keeping effective treatments from those who need them, which include ethical considerations and a lack of evidence-based research. The report outlines eight actions that will enable technology to ethically address mental ill-health at scale.

Executive Summary:

Imagine this: Ajay lives in India. In his teens he experienced an episode of depression. So when, as a new undergraduate, he was offered the chance to sign up for a mental healthcare service, he was keen to do so. Ajay chose a service that used mobile phone and internet technologies to enable him to carefully manage his personal information. Ajay would later develop clinical depression, but he spotted that something wasn’t right early on when the feedback from his mental healthcare app highlighted changes in his sociability. (He was sending fewer messages and leaving his room only to go to campus.) Shortly thereafter, he received a message on his phone inviting him to get in touch with a mental health therapist; the message also offered a choice of channels through which he could get in touch.

Now in his mid-20s, Ajay’s depression is well under control. He has learned to recognize when he’s too anxious and beginning to feel low, and he can practise the techniques he has learned using online tools, as well as easily accessing high-quality advice. His progress through the rare depressive episodes he still experiences is carefully tracked. If he does not respond to the initial, self-care treatment prescribed, he can be quickly referred to a medical professional. Ajay’s experience is replicated across the world in low-, middleand high-income countries. Similar technology-supported mental illness prevention, prediction and treatment services are available to all.

Now back to reality. And today’s reality could not be more different.

A huge void – caused by the stigma that holds people back from seeking help, and by the severe under-resourcing of mental healthcare – leaves more than half of those who experience mental ill health without any treatment.

Even in the wealthiest countries, waiting times for expert appointments and counselling extend to months. (One UK study of more than 500 adults found that a quarter of individuals with mental health issues waited more than three months to see an NHS mental health specialist; 6% had waited at least a year.2 )

And in the poorest areas, isolation, financial hardship and an inability to find even limited treatment is commonplace. However, an experience such as Ajay’s is not as much of a pipe dream as it might appear. The range of new technologies within the mental healthcare sector (and the rate at which these are being developed) is staggering. These innovations span the whole spectrum of mental health, from self-care (one of the fastest-growing markets for apps) to self-assessment tools (there are hundreds of psychological tests available online) through to developments such as electroencephalogy (EEG), which measure brain activity and offer the promise of early diagnosis. [ . . . ]