Over the last few years, the popularity of wearable trackers and monitors has increased substantially. According to recent surveys, roughly 320 million such devices will be shipped to consumers in 2022 alone. By 2024, this figure is then expected to exceed 440 million, demonstrating increasing consumer use. From smart watches to smart patches, there are a number of healthcare uses for these wearable devices. This has accounted for the marked rise in digital therapeutics. But relatively few have suggested benefits in relation to mental wellness. Interestingly, that too seems to be changing as wearable mental health monitors are now being developed.
As one might imagine, developing mental health monitors as a wearable device isn’t as easy as other health monitors. Heart rate, respirations, and even oxygen saturation levels can be readily monitored using wearable trackers today. Likewise, trackers may soon be able to monitor blood pressure that could benefit the 1.3 billion people worldwide with hypertension. But mental health trackers are a little more complicated given the distance between the skin and the brain. That’s why any advances in these wearables have been slower to occur. And it’s also why their future availability in the marketplace is reason for excitement.
The Need for Wearable Mental Health Monitors
In terms of wearable trackers and health monitors, a sizable portion of the population now uses them. In recent surveys, roughly 40% of consumers own a smartwatch, and the vast majority use them for health and fitness reasons. One of the biggest boosts to the wearable health monitor market was actually the pandemic. Over 10% of those purchasing a smartwatch did so to more closely monitor COVID symptoms. And others overcame their anxiety of using these devices as they were forced to engage in digital and virtual platforms. But few wearables until now have been used as mental health monitors. This was unfortunate given the significant rise in depression and anxiety that occurred with the pandemic.
Of course, mental health issues didn’t just appear with COVID. A significant portion of the population suffers from a variety of mental health conditions. Stress, anxiety, and depression are among some of the most prevalent ones affecting society today. Barriers to care are unfortunately several and include lack of insurance, social stigma of mental illness, and poor awareness. However, this could be significantly improved with wearable trackers that helped providers and patients better detect and monitor such problems. Not only could this encourage earlier interventions but would improve mental health awareness at the same time. This is why there is such a need for mental health monitors today.
“We are proud to partner with Ceras Health, an organization that shares our commitment to using innovative technology to ensure that those in need have access to the right care at the right time, with the potential to transform how mental healthcare is identified, monitored and delivered.” – Mainul Mondal, Founder and CEO, Ellipsis Health
Mental Health Monitors and Voice Analysis
One of the recent breakthroughs in mental health monitors appears to be one that leverages deep-learning AI. Ellipsis Health, a San Francisco-based company, has developed wearable trackers that provide voice analysis of its device wearers. By analyzing semantics and acoustics of a person’s voice using AI, they are able to make mental health assessments. Specifically, the device can determine changes in stress, anxiety and depression levels among those tested to date. Plus, the device provides a continuous monitoring platform that can provide real-time data. In testing to date, these mental health monitors have averted some mental health crises and enabled early interventions.
Most recently, Ellipsis announced a collaboration with Ceras Health to expand the use of its mental health monitors. The collaboration will expand Ceras Health’s already extensive use of wearable health devices into mental health areas. Specifically, the collaborative project will explore the benefits of these wearable trackers on Medicare patients. Given that 18 million Medicare patients currently have mental health problems, the impact could be substantial. Not only could this improve quality of care but also save millions in costs and improve resource use. Simply by monitoring someone’s voice, these mental health monitors could make an incredible difference.
“Inferring autonomic nervous system activation from wearable devices in real-time opens new opportunities for monitoring and improving mental health and cognitive engagement.” – Rose Faghih, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, NYU Tandon School of Engineering
Mental Health Monitors and Skin Analysis
Ellipsis isn’t the only innovative researchers pursuing mental health monitors and wearable trackers. NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering researchers have taken a novel approach and are measuring mental health changes via the skin. In essence, variations in the brain’s autonomic nervous system causes changes in the electrical properties of the skin. These electrical changes are manifested through changes in sweat glands and their secretions. As a result, the electrodermal activity (EDA) in the skin changes as emotions and stress vary. Thus, measuring this EDA through a wearable tracker permits a real-time assessment of mental activity.
While these wearable trackers have yet to hit the market, researchers are hopeful they will in the near future. They have already tested their mental health monitors in 26 individuals with good success. They have also found that the results have been quite accurate, and the use of the device easily scaled. Called the MIND WATCH, they anticipate these wearable trackers can be used to “nudge” wearers into a better emotional state. This might be achieved through relaxing music or some other mindfulness or meditative intervention. In any case, they are highly optimistic about the benefits these mental health monitors might offer.
Hurdles to Overcome
The advances in wearable trackers and monitors are occurring at a rapid pace. But at the same time, it’s worth having some level of precaution. Hurdles still exist before the widespread use of these devices in healthcare occurs. Some providers question their overall utility compared to existing strategies and interventions. Others worry about data accuracy and the potential for causing anxiety when false positives result. And of course, healthcare data privacy concerns with these wearable trackers must be considered. However, if these issues can be well addressed, the potential for wearable mental health monitors are tremendous. Hopefully, these innovative technologies can help solve some of the major issues facing mental healthcare today.