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Harnessing technology for mental health

News, Clinical practice, Technology

I have long believed that technology offers a way of reaching people with mental health problems, improving their experience and the effectiveness of treatment, as well as strengthening their ability to manage problems on their own, without seeking professional help.”

– Joe Ruzek

Around 89 per cent of Australian adults own a smartphone and 76 per cent own or have access to a laptop, according to Deloitte’s 2018 Mobile Consumer Survey. This makes these devices an ideal way to reach those who are facing mental health issues, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Joe Ruzek is a clinical psychologist who spent 26 years working with the veteran community. He was director of the dissemination and training division of the National Center for PTSD in the US and believes technology will play an increasingly important role in reaching and supporting veterans with PTSD.

He helped create an app called PTSD Coach – a psychoeducation tool that helps veterans and other people exposed to trauma to self-manage acute stress when reminded of their traumatic experiences. Phoenix Australia has customised the app for the Australian context, and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has developed further apps to support veteran wellbeing.

“PTSD Coach was the first mover in this kind of phone technology, so it got a lot of attention. It helped steamroll the development and the National Center has now developed a  suite of apps,” says Joe.

“Mobile devices, in particular the phone, are very important and have become ubiquitous in all our lives. We use our phone for everything and it makes us available 24/7, and that enables a lot of things. Internet-based interventions for mental health problems are not as flexible, and I think a challenge we face now is moving that content onto mobile devices, making it more digestible and more in keeping with the way people use their technology.”

Joe points to the popularity and effectiveness of apps that are already widely used to help people manage their physical and emotional wellbeing, such as those that encourage people to exercise regularly or that aid relaxation.

He says one challenge is working out which apps are authoritative, evidence-based, and created by bonafide organisations and research teams. Another challenge is encouraging more practitioners to make sense of these technological innovations in mental health care.

“Some practitioners are still wary of technologies – they don’t want anything to come between them and their very important relationship with the person they’re helping,” explains Joe.

“But most are starting to see that this gives them an added tool that can really offer something to their patient, to help them learn what has been discussed during sessions, practise it, and help them stay connected.”

Importantly, Joe believes technology will be a useful tool to help practitioners and patients gain an advanced warning of when a patient’s mental health is deteriorating. Predictive systems using artificial intelligence would enable practitioners to intervene in time to stop a cycle worsening.

Looking ahead, Joe sees technology having a number of roles.

“We want to help people engage with technologies and I think we could develop automation tools that, with human support, would encourage people to stick with the interventions and get benefits,” says Joe.

“I also think it’s important to use the technologies to link people to others who are undergoing similar difficulties for social support. Social support is very important for PTSD and trauma and for all kinds of mental health conditions.

“We need to figure out how we can make sure that the technology doesn’t make people more isolated but instead makes them more connected, while encouraging evidence-based behaviour and the use of emotional change tools. I expect there will be an accelerated uptake of these technologies in the next few years.”

The Centenary of Anzac Centre will be working with Joe Ruzek to ensure we are using these technologies to their full potential to support the mental health and wellbeing of veterans and their families.

Access our online resources and practical tools on veteran, trauma and general mental health topics.