How technology startups are taking on mental health

iOS Health App

If we were still in doubt, recent announcements from Apple and Facebook have confirmed it: 2014 will be the year that health technology went mainstream. Let’s look at the key implications for the mental health community.

Ed Pinkey, Mental Health Consultant and Trainer




Ed Pinkney is a mental health consultant and trainer working in the education sector. He setup a mental health charity called Mental Wealth UK (now merged with Student Minds) and since then he has worked with universities, charities, and public sector bodies in the UK and overseas. He also works with institutions to develop communications strategies and campaigns that promote wellbeing and innovation.

Last month, Apple released its highly anticipated Health app, which aims to make it easier for iPhone users to track a variety of health metrics. Alongside it will be the Apple Watch, the latest wearable device aiming to monitor health markers. Whilst the Apple Watch will be primarily concerned with physical health, it promises to help with monitoring stress factors that can aggravate/ease mental health conditions. Further, being one of the largest global health burdens, the interest and investment that follows all Apple launches is sure to drive new industry innovations aiming to address mental illness.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that Facebook is also entering the health arena through support communities for health conditions. Such communities have existed since the advent of internet bulletin boards, but are notorious for promoting false information and abusive posts. Debates about such boards have been rife in the mental health community, with many believing that Internet Service Providers should take more responsibility for protecting users. With Facebook apparently consulting leading health professionals, the company might just have the scale to reinvent the health-based bulletin board and create a more stable, safe and accessible source of support for those with mental health problems.

Perhaps just as likely is that breakthroughs will come from within the growing number of dedicated health startups – most of which are developing services that fall into one or more of three of the following categories.

Firstly, self-monitoring devices and tracking apps. Excitement about wearable devices such as Nike’s FuelBand has exploded over the past couple of years, and forthcoming technologies such as Google’s glucose-monitoring contact lenses could be life-changing for those with chronic health conditions, potentially paving the way for similar devices with a neuroscientific/cognitive basis.

Secondly, digital therapeutic and self-help tools. Mobile apps such as Headspace and Calm, which provide accessible forms of guided-meditation, are already making it easier for people to keep stress and anxiety at bay.

Thirdly, digital mentoring and peer-support services for health conditions. Apps such as TalkLife and Mindfull are building communities that facilitate moderated peer support and mentoring for those struggling with mental health problems, promising not only to decrease loneliness and isolation but also to improve the sharing of information about mental health services.

Whilst most of the technologies and startups within these categories are in their infancy, their trajectories are hugely impressive, fuelled by entrepreneurial ambition, free-spiritedness and venture capital. There’s every reason to expect that they will achieve mass adoption, if the science and regulation keeps apace. This is perhaps the big if. Startups need to be working closely with researchers to make sure that any claims they make are evidence backed, and charities and authorities need to be closely monitoring developments and ensuring adequate regulation is in place to protect users. If they can do this without stifling the growth of technologies over the next few years, we might just be about to see a huge leap in the prevention and treatment of mental health problems.

References available upon request.

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