Are biometrics the new Superhero of mental health?

By Peta Slocombe

If there was a Hall of Fame, you’d probably find it has been 40 years since mental health had the closest thing to a Superhero. There, a little dusty, with its underwear on the outside of its tights would be the launch of SSRIs – a more targeted pharmacological approach to treating depression. In awe of its capability, Time Magazine famously dedicated a front cover to proposing that the United States should consider putting Prozac in the water.

Helpful, it was. A silver bullet, it was not.

Since then, mental illness has become the epidemic of the 21st century – the largest cause of preventable death, the greatest cause of disability and the most prolific disease on the planet.

For many people, let’s face it, mental health is the ‘heartsink’ patient of the health world. For organisations and even governments, it is the distant relative you know you need to invite to the wedding but have no idea where to seat.

Most of us understand that mental health issues are now common, and few dispute the personal, societal and economic impacts. But how do you manage the unseeable? When does a mental health issue really start or finish? Where is the line between normal and unwell? And do we need a pill, a therapist, or a kombucha-drinking, yoga-practicing, mindfulness retreat for it?

In the last 4 years of working with Medibio’s technology, I have become increasingly clear that they are problems only biometrics will solve. The brain hasn’t changed a great deal in the last thousand years but our environment and the way we interact with it, has. The autonomic nervous system, designed to manage fight or flight responses that kept our ancestors alive in the face of a wild boar thundering toward them, is now in a constant state of overdrive as we mess with sleep, incessant demands, and an addiction to always-on technology. Using wearables to track the body’s autonomic activity provides a window into the previously unseeable, before mental (and physical) ill health result.

Three of the most significant issues biometrics can solve include:

Problem 1: Assessment and monitoring needs to be objective. The onset of, and recovery from, a mental health disorder needs to be as measurable as low blood sugar is to diabetes or low iron is to anemia. Quantifying mental health will reduce the stigma, increase treatment compliance and enable more appropriate insurance and workplace support.

Problem 2: Clinicians need something other than self report and observation to support their decision making. No other area of medicine is tasked with diagnosis with no blood or urine tests, x-rays or physical examinations. Giving GPs, Psychiatrists and Psychologists a dashboard of biometrics as decision support tools will enhance both diagnosis and treatment effectiveness.

Problem 3: Mental health disorders are primarily cyclical and episodic in nature. You don’t have it or not have it – nor do you treat it and cure it in most cases. Most people move between depression and anxiety at some point – there is no one cause and no one treatment. Tracking the cycles on your smartwatch before they become unavoidable takes us closer to changing them. Care plans need to be deeply personalised based on these cycles.

There are 450 million people diagnosed every year with a mental health disorder, and I think they deserve more quality of life than we’ve been able to give them. Our Corporate Healthclients are seeing how biometrics have changed the game, and in the next months a direct-to-consumer product takes the reach further.

You know what? Maybe there is no superhero. Mental health is a challenge many incredibly talented, committed people are trying to solve. But in the 25 years I’ve been a practicing, lecturing, consulting and publishing Psychologist, I can say this: Biometrics are the closest thing to a super hero I’ve ever seen.

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