The past, present and future of innovation in mental health

By Dr Nick Venters, 10 July 2018

Head and shoulders photo of Nick Venters wearing glasses, suit and open neck shirt

Mental health has been transformed over the last seventy years.  There have been so many changes: the closure of the old asylums; moving care into the community; the increasing the use of talking therapies.  They have all had a hugely positive impact on patients and mental health care.

One major change has been the shift in society’s attitudes. People are becoming more accepting of mental health problems and more supportive of people with issues. They are more aware of common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, and are more willing to talk to health professionals and seek treatment.

On the other end of the spectrum, patients who have experienced childhood trauma are more confident in talking about it, and society is more aware of its potential causes, with parents, school teachers and safeguarding leads looking out for signs of abuse. Hopefully this may reduce the number of cases in the future.

Digitally, I think the most important innovation in mental health has been shared records and the drive to connect up different clinical systems.  I have seen this develop over the last ten years and it has helped bring mental health into the mainstream.

We can now see correspondence from the neurologist, the diabetologist or GPs, so it’s much more of a shared working environment and there is much better communication between these different specialties.  This really impacts on people’s care.

However, one of the biggest technological challenges we face in mental health at the moment is lack of data. Mental health isn’t blessed with large research budgets. However, if we can power up studies by looking at ever-bigger comparative data sets then we can hopefully jump forwards in our understanding of mental health problems.

When I was training, a lot of the research came from Scandinavia, because they had big data sets to work from, sometimes for twenty or thirty thousand people. However, as we digitise our systems, we’re going to get bigger and bigger data sets to look at. We will be able to turn that into millions of people, rather than thousands.

The power of all this data will grow our understanding of the causes of mental health problems, whether our treatments work and whether we’re investing money in the right places for the greatest benefit.  That would have the potential to revolutionise how we view and treat mental health in the future.