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How Technology is Redefining Mental Healthcare Access

How Technology is Redefining Mental Healthcare Access

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Fortunately, technology is becoming a handy tool for providing urgent care for people with mental illnesses, especially in places where the traditional healthcare system is ill-equipped to assist. 

By Michael Akuchie

The origin of mental healthcare can be traced to 1843 when the term “mental hygiene”, was used by American physician and author, William Sweetser, to describe efforts geared at preserving one’s emotional well-being. From then to now, mental healthcare has grown into an integral part of our lives, deserving constant attention just like our physical health.  

The Center for Disease Control (CDC), America’s leading organisation tasked with safeguarding public health, says that mental health “includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” The body further notes that the state of our mental health affects our stress response, how we relate to people, and the kind of choices we make. Not tending to our mental health adequately can be dangerous, and can predispose one to additional health conditions like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. 

In its address to celebrate World Mental Health Day in 2023, the African CDC estimated that over 116 people with mental health were living on the continent.  Naturally, one would expect access to quality care to be easy, but that is often not the case. The African CDC noted in its message that few people had access to mental healthcare, and this has been worsened by low public awareness, with little to no funding/interest from the governments. 

Fortunately, technology is becoming a handy tool for providing urgent care for people with mental illnesses, especially in places where the traditional healthcare system is ill-equipped to handle the situation. One such way is through the internet. 

No doubt, the advent of the internet and its favourite child, social media, has been a double-edged sword. While people across the globe have felt closer thanks to instant messaging platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, the internet has also nurtured crimes like cyber-bullying, child pornography, and fraud to incredible proportions. For mental health care, too, the internet has been a mix of good and bad. But focusing on the positives, it is worth noting that the Internet has given non-governmental organisations a platform to reach a larger population than any physical initiative could manage. 

Mentally Aware Nigeria International (MANI) is one such group. A non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to creating awareness of mental health and illnesses, MANI has an online presence on platforms such as X, Instagram, and TikTok. There’s also a feature where people can fill out an online form to be connected with a counsellor.  So far, MANI is Nigeria’s leading provider of crisis support. Within four years of existence, the organisation has offered direct support to over 40,000 people. It has also trained 5,000+ employees and 30,000+ students, parents, and teachers on mental health. 

Seeing as Africa is a mobile-first continent, with over 75% of the web traffic originating from mobile devices, the use of mobile applications capable of educating users on mental health is not surprising. The Ayya Africa App, which launched last year, is Africa’s pioneer mental health service and online therapy platform. Available on Google PlayStore and the App Store, the app offers three services: knowledge, advice, and therapy. 

Some tech startups have also attempted to connect more people needing mental healthcare through their innovative solutions. Similar to telemedicine where patients can speak with physicians virtually, Nguvu Health offers teletherapy services to individuals and businesses. According to Medical News Today, a health news platform, teletherapy is “any remote therapy that uses technology to help the therapist and client communicate.” Sessions held over the phone and therapy conducted over email or instant messaging platforms count as teletherapy.  This has made it more convenient for people to get direct help from therapists without being physically present. 

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Another instance of technology democratising access to mental healthcare is the use of chatbots. An AI-driven programme designed to interact with customers on messaging apps or websites, chatbots have been instrumental in improving the customer experience for many businesses by offering instant responses to common queries from clients.  But that is not their only use case. They can also be used for mental healthcare. Wysa, for example, is an anxiety and therapy chatbot that users can speak with for free. They can also use mindfulness exercises like breathing and walking exercises to relieve themselves from anxiety and stress. 

How Technology is Redefining Mental Healthcare Access - Afrocritik
Wysa Chatbot

Despite the valiant efforts of technology in aiding mental health awareness efforts, issues like poor internet connectivity, low smartphone penetration in certain regions, and high cost of data make it difficult for people to access technology-driven healthcare. The use of mobile apps and chatbots also raises some serious concerns about data privacy and how patients’ data are being used upon collection. Data breaches in the healthcare industry are not an uncommon phenomenon, so this is worth worrying about as cybercriminals typically steal patient data to commit identity theft fraud or sell on the dark web. 

Despite the many advances in mental health awareness and care that technology has spearheaded, there is still so much to be done. For instance, many governments have been known to allocate a small sum towards mental healthcare in their health budget. According to the World Economic Forum, many African governments set aside less than 1% for mental health initiatives. Trends like this make it difficult for healthcare professionals to reach everyone in need. People with mental health conditions are also prone to stigma from family members and friends. While technology breaks barriers by enabling more people to receive support through innovations like apps and chatbots, NGOs and the government can organise sensitisation projects in communities to change people’s perceptions about mental health for the better. 

Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

Cover Photo: Total Shape from Pixabay

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