October is Depression Awareness month, but Colorado’s mental health care is lacking. Now, where the established system hasn’t provided results, technology startups are trying to bridge the gap.
As someone who has suffered with a mental illness, entrepreneur Matt Vogl hopes to eliminate stigma around mental illness — and around technology’s effect on mental health.
“We’ve been viewing technology as a huge threat to our mental health,” he said, citing concerns about long work hours, screen addiction and isolation.
But technology may be able to move more quickly than government to address some of the most pressing mental health needs right here in Colorado.
Despite low unemployment, a booming economy and the “most days of sunshine” in the United States, Colorado has the 6th highest suicide rate.
In August 2014, Governor John Hickenlooper established the state’s first suicide hotline (844-493-TALK) to combat the problem.
Despite that, the Colorado Health Foundation released new data this year that shows the problem has gotten worse: At about 19.4 suicides per 100,000 people, Colorado lost 1,058 to suicide in 2014, the latest year for which data is available.
In June of this year, Hickenlooper signed into law a “zero suicide bill,” implementing a task force to devise solutions.
But government can move slowly.
Just what are they up against?
Depression is an insidious disease that can be triggered by traumatic events, environmental factors or psychological predisposition. The median age of onset is 32 and women are disproportionately affected — about twice as often as men, according the Center for Disease Control.
Although depression doesn’t always lead to suicide, the majority of suicides are committed by individuals suffering from depression. About 60 percent of annual suicides are linked to depression, while 90 percent are linked to mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Unfortunately the public is not always informed about mental healthcare options, and seeking care can be difficult.
In the Colorado Health Foundation’s report on the state of mental healthcare in Colorado, 57.3 percent of those surveyed worried about cost of care, with 43.3 percent believing their insurance would not provide coverage.
About 40 percent said they felt uncomfortable discussing their problems with a doctor and 27.6 percent said they worried there would be repercussions if anyone discovered they had sought treatment.
And 34 percent said they had trouble accessing care.
Colorado’s mental healthcare budget ranks 27th in the nation. The state spends about $98 per person, per year on mental healthcare, compared to the nearly $5,000 it spends per capita annually on general healthcare.
Vogl launched the National Behavioral Health Innovation Center in December 2015. In partnership with Phil Anschutz (but independent of StartUp Health at CU Anschutz), the startup has raised $10 million to-date.
“Technology can do a number of different things for us,” Vogl said. “In the short run, it can provide effective tools for mental health providers, and can free up capacity in the system.”
His organization is still new, but is knee-deep in project development. Currently, the center is working with first responders to develop a confidential platform based on peer support that opens discussion about trauma and mental illness.
Another project in the works is a collaboration with Pixar’s “Inside Out.” Vogl said the film was lauded for encouraging parents to talk to their kids about emotions.
Vogl’s team is working on leveraging technology and the familiar characters to engage kids in cognitive behavioral therapy, where doctors may fail.
“It can illustrate some concepts for kids that psychologists sometimes have difficulties with,” Vogl said.
Beyond his current projects, Vogl sees a world where technology may someday replace some humans in mental healthcare.
“As fast as things develop, that won’t be too far off,” he said. “The role of doctors isn’t going to go away, but it’s going change. Tech will at the very least augment their work and in some cases replace them.”
Psychologist and 20-year tech veteran Michael LeBlond disagrees. LeBlond launched Centennial-based WebPsychology three months ago.
For now, the website acts primarily as an information resource. It contains links enabling those suffering from a mental illness to chat with a doctor or make an appointment with a therapist. But the next steps are all about development.
LeBlond’s team is researching computer-based cognitive behavioral therapy tools, behavior-altering games and mental health mobile apps.
As a psychologist and techie, Le Blond believes the pace of scientific research will hold back technology.
“The time it takes to design a research study, go through a review board. It takes a long time to get published,” he said. “So how do you research a category of mobile apps, when technology changes so quickly?”
He said this adds an element of risk to using existing mental health technology.
“The danger is that people are trying it and we are not sure whether or not it is helpful.”
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