This is an era of digitalization, internet, wifi, use of mobile and smart phones, virtual world, applications and technology. On one hand these are contributing to cyber psychopathology, on the other hand these have a potential for management.
With the understanding of disability as a complex interaction between the effects of illness and contextual factors, both personal and environmental, the relevance of new avenues to deliver rehabilitative services is profound. A significant proportion of the population is underserved, with the National Mental Health Survey of India 2016- a survey which covered 34,802 individuals from 12 states of India- showing a mental morbidity of 10.6% in those over the age of 18 years, and 7.3% in those between the ages of 13 and 17, but with a treatment gap of 28–83% (and 86% for alcohol use disorders). In addition, “three out of four persons with a severe mental disorder experienced significant disability in work, social and family life” . Given the extent of the need and the dearth of services, the report recommends the following, “Technology based applications for near-to-home-based care using smart-phone by health workers, evidence-based (electronic) clinical decision support systems for adopting minimum levels of care by doctors, creating systems for longitudinal follow-up of affected persons to ensure continued care through electronic databases and registers can greatly help in this direction. To facilitate this, convergence with other flagship schemes such as Digital India needs to be explored” . Recent data has shown that smartphone user base in India has crossed 300 million users in 2016, making it the second largest smartphone market in the world . The potential for service delivery via internet enabled devices seems likely only to rise over time, but what are the possibilities before us now, and equally important, what are the challenges to such approaches?
Information access: Access to information and more specifically, access to relevant and accurate information have to potential to allow caregivers and patients to recognise mental health issues early, and seek help. Some of this information will be from traditional media, such as radio and television, but a significant proportion of people are likely to glean this information from social media sites and communication apps—such as the almost ubiquitous Whatsapp—on which they also consume other services and obtain their daily news and information from. Search algorithms and the way they rank different sources of information are likely to play an important role in the way people form their opinions about the illnesses they suffer from and the way they seek help. There is a need for curated information on mental health, especially in the Indian context and in vernacular languages, that people can not only refer to themselves, but which they can direct their friends and family toward as reliable sources of information too. Health care professionals must be prepared to help their patients learn ‘eHealth literacy’ .
Automation: Work is something that most people with mental illness aspire to do, and this can enhance their quality of life significantly . Automation and applications of artificial intelligence are poised to change the face of industry as well as our lifestyles. Some traditional jobs such as fabrication and driving are poised to radically change. This will mean that vocational rehabilitation programmes will have to keep pace with a changing environment, and look to integrating industry expertise in the designing of courses and course materials which remain relevant to patients. Government programmes such as the Skill India initiative have the potential to help evolve this flexibility in course design, and to skill or re-skill persons in their quest to obtain and sustain jobs.
Workplace is being replaced by home based workstations, computers, laptops and notebooks. People accustomed to these run their office from anywhere and everywhere. There will be a need to redefine ‘work place’ as ‘where ever the laptop is’. Thus, in future, persons undergoing rehabilitation, can ‘work from home’, provided they have the facilities, and job to do. Staying and working from home for persons with mental health problems, will prevent them from ‘live’ socialising, using social skills, and giving respite to family caregivers. On the other hand, they would be under direct supervision of the family, reducing their concerns and anxieties.
Digital identities and digital payments: With the increasing digitisation of access to services, there is a growing need for education in digital literacy and security. Programmes which teach life skills will have to help their users familiarise themselves with the advantages of new technologies as well as the risks they bring. A number of records related to disability are likely to form parts of central databases, such as the Unique Disability ID , and the potential to offer a number of services through a single user interface to those with disability is significant. It would also ease the accessing of such benefits even when patients travel or move to other states, whether temporarily or permanently. The storage of health records in electronic formats, e-health records, would allow patients to exert control over access to their own records and enable transfers from one healthcare provider to another without delay or loss of information. An e-health record format which is shared among different providers and which allows different hospital information systems to effectively share information is an important need. There can be a possibility to maintain a central registry of persons receiving mental health rehabilitation services.
Wearables and digital phenotyping: The mobile devices and other wearable accessories we use have the potential to collect vast amounts of information about our health. Newer approaches look to collect information such as changes in the speed of our typing or motor movements, or the searches we repeat and use these to make estimates about the status of our cognitive and neurological health in real time–an approach called digital phenotyping. This could aid in monitoring persons suffering from dementia or mild cognitive deficits. It could also be used to explore trajectories of development in children and adolescents, and could help inform early intervention programmes. Over and above monitoring, the use of digital assistants could be used to guide and shape behaviour in real time, provide cognitive aids and reduce dependency as well as the burden on caregivers for some tasks.
Virtual Reality and Augmented reality: Virtual reality (VR) refers to an interactive immersive experience wherein a computer generated world which a user can interact with is simulated with either a screen or a heads-up display. Augmented reality systems allow perception of the environment around along with the simulated projection. It’s also used to refer to situations where mobile phones or wearables can be used to interact with the environment around to either generate a virtual experience or provide additional information.
It’s been used as an application for interventions in phobias for some time. Recent gains in the technology have coincided with an expansion of uses to cognitive rehabilitation, social skills training and even craving management in alcohol use disorders . The number of mental health professionals available to deliver these services is low compared to demand and unequally distributed. With the evolution of mobile systems that can deliver VR experiences, such as the Google Daydream platform, it may be possible to translate some of these packages into content that can be delivered across such platforms with fidelity. There is still some work to be done about how perception of such experiences can affect symptoms in those with mental illness, and even if the same visual illusions are perceived differently.
Social networks, communication apps and peer support: Social networks and social media increasingly influence information access and viewpoints. They can serve as accepting communities to which people can feel as if they belong. They can also carry risks, including the spread of myths and misconceptions. Peer support groups, much like other networks, are now easier to form and to find. Hence, the potential for persons with mental illness to be involved in advocacy movements and to influence public policy is unprecedented, if still underutilised. The ability to use social networks and the internet to market products and expand networks can help those who chose to be entrepreneurs have greater reach and exposure. The ability to use these networks effectively, and other marketing skills, would also become a skill set that requires mentoring in.
The use of learning networks: Virtual classrooms and virtual learning networks have the potential to raise standards of care delivery by spreading best care practices and knowledge. Initiatives like the ECHO network and the Virtual Knowledge Network, NIMHANS can help spread the expertise of institutes by mentoring professionals who are involved in care delivery. They can also serve as ways to allow different institutes to demonstrate their own best practices and innovative models of service delivery to their peers.
The future of psychiatric practice, including psychiatric rehabilitation, in relation to virtual reality, technology and gadgets is likely to change with advances in technology and their usage . While the tools that are available are changing, they will still be guided by the principles that form the bedrock of good practice in rehabilitation. Patients and their families may be drawn to online resources for rehabilitation.
The current issue of the journal is rather healthy with seventeen articles. And there is a good global distribution as well, with descriptions of mental health and rehabilitation services in Vietnam, Nigeria, USA, UK, Canada, Malaysia, and Iran. These have also covered a wide range of themes, from recovery scales, models for community based rehabilitation and community participation, in patient services, first episode psychosis, helping mothers with intellectual disabilities, and infertility. In addition, a book review on a very useful book on challenges of care giving for mental illness, cover an interesting spectrum of articles.