Digital innovation is changing the behavioral healthcare landscape

By Cynthia Telles, Ph.D.

In 2013, nearly 44 million adults--almost 14 percent of the nation's population--suffered from at least one form of a mental illness. Furthermore, nearly 10 million adults also suffered from a mental illness that was severe enough to hinder at least one "major life activity." Clearly, the need for behavioral healthcare across the country has never been greater. And in today's constantly connected, digitally fueled world, neither has the need for tools and technologies designed to treat those who are suffering.

When it comes to behavioral healthcare, people will often consult their devices before turning to their providers for information and treatment. Whether they look up potential root causes of symptoms or seek support through online communities and social networks, the digital landscape is often the first responder to those suffering with behavioral health conditions--even more so than some chronic conditions. Given that wireless connectivity is often never more than a device away, it's no wonder why the SoMoClo--social, mobile, and cloud--movement has expanded beyond fitness trackers and nutrition apps to encompass behavioral healthcare as well.

For example, a mobile app called Priori tracks and analyzes speech patterns through the phone's microphone, looking for abnormalities and warning signs brought on by conditions such as bipolar depression or schizophrenia. Also, a new suite of apps use the techniques of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)--including coaching, counseling, and tracking--to help combat common behavioral health issues among teens, such as eating disorders and anxiety. CBT encourages patients to journal, and many apps help them do so. There also are mobile platforms designed specifically for mood tracking, behavior analysis, and other treatment exercises.

Both the prevalence of and need for engaging tools, technologies, and digital platforms will only continue to grow--especially among the younger generations. Young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 are 60 percent more likely to have depression than those over age 50. Additionally, 1 in 5 teens and young adults live with a behavioral health condition, with half developing one by the age of 14. The earlier behavioral health problems are identified in young adults, the earlier treatment can start and additional conditions can be avoided. Technology is the catalyst for change at a time when it has never been needed more.

From the perspective of care providers, the proliferation of electronic health records, as well as increased capabilities for health information exchange, improve the identification and treatment of behavioral health. When information is pulled out of silos and a technology infrastructure is in place to enable the exchange of data between primary care and behavioral health providers, the ability to truly integrate the two sides becomes possible.

While sharing patient data is critically important across all primary and specialty care lines, the ability to have a holistic view into a patient's history becomes even more so for behavioral health and primary care. Mental illness and chronic diseases--including obesity and heart disease--often go hand in hand: Those suffering from chronic illness are more likely to suffer from mental illness as well. For example, diabetes patients are twice as likely to suffer from depression versus those who do not have the disease.

As Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, said at a recent panel discussion about the effects of the Affordable Care Act on behavioral health patients with comorbidities, mental illnesses are "the only chronic conditions that, as a matter of public policy, we wait until Stage 4 to treat, and then often only through incarceration." This path has never been viable, and is certainly not sustainable.

Now is the time to bring patients, care providers, and technology together to ensure we can identify and intervene early enough to change the future of the behavioral health care landscape for patients and providers alike. Given the digital world in which we all live, starting treatment of mental illnesses at "Stage 4" is simply no longer an option.

Cynthia Telles has served on the board of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Health Plans for over 10+ years. She is an associate clinical professor with the UCLA School of Medicine and director of the Spanish-Speaking Psychosocial Clinic of the Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital at the university.