New articles and studies are published almost daily bemoaning the negative impact of technology on our mental health - but could technology actually help form part of our defence armoury too?
The Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare certainly thinks so. "CATCH" brings together researchers from a variety of disciplines at the University of Sheffield to develop uses for technology across the healthcare and wellbeing spectrum, from diagnosis to rehabilitation, infant schools to care homes, from wellbeing to chronic fatigue, motor neurone disease and even sight loss and dementia.
Mental health use cases go far beyond the well-known wellbeing apps. One £1.5m project recently announced will look over the course of five years at assistive technologies, including zoomorphic companion robots intended to reduce anxiety in children in hospitals, and "telepresence robots" allowing relatives and social workers to check in with elderly people who may live far away, without needing the patient to learn how to operate the device. Other studies have looked at the use of robots to "mediate" between children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their therapists, or avatars to administer psychological tests and therapy between sessions.
It is incontrovertible that technology has the potential to revolutionise healthcare but, as the European Parliament highlighted earlier this year, each separate use case poses a different set of technical and ethical challenges, as well as different benefits. Mental health is no different: on the one hand, integrating healthcare into daily life can help us understand how we interact with the world around us. Ongoing or on-demand treatment plans could enable a more targeted approach than short pre-scheduled sessions. By giving patients control, healthtech can even foster a sense of self-reliance. On the other hand, the risks of losing the "human element" of care are particularly acute.
That, I suppose, is the crux: healthtech may one day be able to identify, biopsy and safely remove a tumour far less invasively than traditional surgery, but the role of technology in mental healthcare must be different. A purely automated response to a social - human - condition is surely somehow missing the point.
Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 began on Monday 13 and ran until Sunday 19 May. To mark the week, my colleagues and I had the chance to be involved in a number of talks and workshops exploring the science of mental health and what wellbeing means in the legal sector, including a session with the brilliant John-Paul Flintoff in which I learnt that my lowly office plant has yet another role - as an artistic muse.
Drawing a plant in 90 seconds
[CATCH research has] a strong focus on co-design and that means that products and services are being developed and tested in collaboration with the people who will ultimately be using them.