Personalised smartphone applications and wearable technologies that are attuned to the user's state of mind are offering customised ways of helping people cope with mental illness.

The rising incidence of mental health problems places great strain on health systems and societies around the world. In the EU, mental health disorders are already estimated to cost the economy €798 billion a year– a figure that is expected to double by 2030. Given the prevalence of mental health issues, some researchers seeking alternative ways to treat the more common conditions are turning to technology to help.

'Most existing apps stop with the data – it's not part of a programme of interventions you can take,' said Professor Corina Sas, a researcher in human-computer interaction at Lancaster University in the UK. 'At present, data capture is very disconnected with the high-level-type thinking we make in terms of emotional processing.'

Mental Health Illness 

To tackle this, Prof. Sas and her colleagues are attempting to create more intelligent, interactive technologies that harness information about the emotional states of users over time to automatically offer tailored advice on dealing with mental health issues.

Through the AffecTech project, they are developing a personalized, low-cost toolkit using a range of technologies for individuals with 'affective' health conditions like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. They aim to support people with mild to modern conditions—some of whom may not visit a doctor, but could benefit from this technology.

Emotional management

One approach, she says, could be to use wearable cameras to allow users to record events taking place when they are in a particular emotional state, which they could later watch to help them understand the factors that may trigger positive and negative emotions. The team has also tested prototypes of wrist-worn, color-changing biosensors that help users track their own emotions.

Another idea stems from coloring in intricate mandala patterns, which some research has shown to reduce anxiety and is growing in popularity through the sale of adult coloring books. 'Imagine a cube on which you move your finger and start coloring in patterns,' said Prof. Sas.

Chat app

The Shim project, run by a team of psychologists, researchers, writers, engineers and designers, is combining techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy – a talking therapy commonly used to treat people with mental health issues – with human-like support on a mobile-based chat app.

The system uses AI to spot language patterns and keywords to create personalized text-based conversations that help to shift the user's mental perspective when they report a negative thought.

Dr. Kien Hoa Ly, a researcher in behavioral sciences and learning at Linköping University in Sweden and chief executive of the project's company Hello Shim, explained that the app uses positive psychology to help a user reflect more optimistically on their own life.

'In the everyday interaction, we are using positive psychology to make the user reflect upon positive things in life, experiences and what the user is grateful for,' said Dr. Ly. 'We are building a mental map of every user and their inputs. As a user talks to Shim it grows, which makes Shim remember more things and ask more questions.'

A pilot study published last year showed that participants who talked to Shim reported a higher level of emotional wellbeing and lower stress levels than a control group after using the app for two weeks. Shim is now planning a larger study, which may involve collaborating with several US universities. 'In the future, we will see a world where you pick up your phone when you are feeling down to get emotional support in the moment,' Dr. Ly said.