In the nick of time: Are promising mental health innovations right around the corner?

In the nick of time: Are promising mental health innovations right around the corner?

Emerging approaches to managing mental health

More than ever before, innovation and new approaches to mental health treatment and support are vital for breaking through the isolation experienced by so many, and for offering accessible, effective care to those who need it.

And just as is often the case, where the need is great, so too is the opportunity.  Many companies are exploring new ways to prevent and manage mental health illnesses. Recent examples span a wide range of areas including the rise of research into psychedelics to effectively manage treatment-resistant depression through to applications and online communities where individuals can speak to like-minded patients and access digital tools in real-time.

New ideas are constantly emerging across the whole mental health ecosystem, from changing how we run clinical trials for new treatments, to the adoption of digital training tools for healthcare professionals. The scope for innovation in mental health is broad and must be supported.

Beyond new tools and new treatments, the pandemic has also unearthed fault-lines across health systems and highlighted the ability of regulators and industry to collaborate flexibly to the benefit of patients – in this, mental health is no exception.

Stubborn challenges limit productive progress

However, there is a complex range of issues surrounding mental health management with effectiveness, equity, access, and distrust at the core. Combine these challenges with a lack of established infrastructure or prioritisation for mental health treatments and it is no surprise that the unmet need of patients globally continues to soar.  

Stigma in particular still greatly affects how mental health is managed by many health systems – from patient reluctance to seek help due to perceived social stigma, to the lack of availability and understanding of new therapies and treatments from healthcare professionals, these challenges span the entire sector.

Even when treatments technically become available, the challenge of access often persists. This is due to a multitude of factors including patients feeling they must manage in silence, waiting lists being at an all-time high, or a limited workforce being available to deliver care.

Government funding and investment in mental health still lag behind. For instance, the WHO 2020 Mental Health Atlas revealed a significant lack of investment in mental health services by countries globally and found that the increased awareness of mental health in recent years is yet to translate into quality mental services.

Where new innovations emerge, such as in controlled substances including medicinal cannabis, psilocybin or ketamine, legal hurdles and stigma surrounding these drugs may prevent research and access from fully taking off. Similarly, data privacy, product quality and safeguarding are just some of the challenges that those bringing digital solutions to market will have to address.

When presented with novel mental health treatments or new mental health apps, all too often neither the patient nor caregiver has the confidence, trust or understanding of these innovations and their role in providing effective care. Education around the potential of new solutions is also urgently needed.

The road ahead

Despite these challenges, innovators are well-placed to drive a much-needed revolution in mental health care. The diverse nature of the companies behind the latest innovations will likely lead to a new ecosystem of stakeholders, working together to overcome existing roadblocks. By approaching well-documented challenges from entirely new perspectives, the sector may benefit from new solutions more rapidly than anticipated. 

Aspirations for change also continue to grow among politicians and senior healthcare leaders. And this new wave of innovations in medicine and technology across conditions may be the springboard required, spurring broader discussion in key areas such as data collection, cross-industry and academia collaboration, and the need for holistic, joined-up care.

The role of industry now is to spearhead the prioritisation of mental health across the sector, building collaboration with stakeholders in policy, payor and provision spaces to ensure patients benefit from innovations and have access to the care they need.

Navigating this complex environment will be far from easy. But, with a holistic understanding of the mental health landscape, industry can shape the way we treat mental health and help to end the isolation experienced by so many.

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