Imagine that it’s time for your weekly appointment with your therapist. You settle in, get comfortable on the couch, and proceed to spend the next hour discussing a difficult relationship. Your therapist gives you a few “assignments” to work on before your next session — and then you both log out of the online counseling service.

Digital tools, including online counseling services, apps, and even wearable devices are revolutionizing the world of mental health. Not only can patients now access counselors or other professionals via video, but electronic tools can also help monitor patients and recommend interventions before a crisis occurs. In a world where a lack of access to mental health services is a serious issue, digital services have potential to be a viable solution.

Trends in Digital Mental Health

Digital mental health is expanding across the board, from the earliest stages of research to delivery of care.

For instance, clinical researchers are developing new means of evaluating mental health via wearable devices. MIT researchers, for example, have been investigating the physical signs of mental well-being using wearable devices. In one study, scientists used wearables to measure college students’ stress levels and the factors that contribute to their overall well-being, in particular sleep. Other studies have used smartphones as a tool for data collection in eCOA studies, requiring participants to rate their mental health using an app.

Digital technology isn’t only proving useful in clinical research settings, though. Digital tools are gaining greater acceptance as a tool for measurement and assessment of patients, as well. Many of the questionnaires that have been administered with paper and pencil and scored manually, for instance, have been replaced with electronic versions that provide more consistency across the board.

More importantly, though, researchers are developing ways to make these tools even more useful and accurate. Virtual reality, for instance, is being considered as a means of evaluating responses and sensitivity to certain situations and/or environments. And again, data collected via wearables and smartphones can potentially be used to identify the markers of “imminent risk” and spur interventions sooner.

Digital technology is also proving useful in the delivery of care. There are multiple digital tools available for self-help, including websites and apps. However, research indicates that most of these direct to user interventions are most effective when they are accompanied by support from a trained practitioner.  In other words, outcomes tend to improve when patients use the digital tools — questionnaires, exercises, etc. — and also receive support from a clinician, in the form of face-to-face therapeutic sessions, group counseling, or accountability check-ins.

That being said, there is also a growing trend toward using technology to provide face-to-face encounters as well. Digital counseling offers several benefits, especially to those who do not otherwise have access to mental health services. Seeing a counselor or therapist online allows individuals to not only receive necessary services, but to choose counselors who have specific skillsets or specialties when they might not otherwise be able to.

And finally, there are apps. There is an abundance of mental health apps, offering everything from questionnaires and self-assessments to connections with mental health professionals. While there are still questions about the effectiveness of these apps, developers note that apps are often a good first step toward treatment, often offering anonymous, 24-hour access to services that may be what spurs someone to get the help they need.

Digital Drawbacks

While digital technology is undoubtedly changing the face of mental health research and delivery, it does still require some refinement before it becomes a standard part of treatment protocols. Most wearable devices, for example, are not currently approved for clinical use. Researchers are working with the FDA to expand approvals, but there are still obstacles, such as keeping the devices charged and ensuring accuracy. Similar questions abound when it comes to applications: Currently, there aren’t any industry standards for gauging the usefulness or clinical viability of apps, or the regulation of the data these apps collect. In fact, privacy and security are significant concerns when it comes to online and digital mental health tools, and a major barrier to many individuals’ willingness to use them.

Still, even with all the drawbacks, there is undoubtedly a place for digital technology in mental health. From more accurate and thorough research methods to improved access to service, it’s reasonable to say that the future of mental health is digital.