How the American Psychiatric Association wants to Transform Mental Health Care

By Julie Kliegman

April 25, 2016

As technology advances, accessing mental health care is getting easier. Apps, for example, can help with everything from anxiety to providing support from bullying to managing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But innovators in psychiatry say they want to see much more creative problem solving in their field. It’s an area with the potential to help large numbers of people; one in five adults experiences diagnosable mental illness each year.

“We’re really failing to treat patients adequately, and many patients can’t get access to the care that they need,” said Donovan Wong, the medical director of behavioral health for Doctor on Demand, a smartphone app that quickly connects people with health care providers. “The upside is I think there is a lot of opportunity to do things in a different way.”

That’s where the American Psychiatric Association’s inaugural Innovation Lab comes in. The event, where Wong will serve as a judge, is set for May 15, during the group’s annual conference. The goal is to bring together seven teams of finalists, chosen from an open call for submissions, to work on their ideas for improving mental health care, with the winners receiving $2,500 at the end of the three-hour session.

The association is looking for a broad range of ideas, including ones that address access to care, disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, said Nina Vasan, a Stanford psychiatry resident and the event’s chair. So far, she’s seen submissions that propose teaching users mindfulness through an app, using a smartphone to detect psychosis early, and using cultural media to improve access to care.

“Every day clinicians, patients, and their loved ones are coming up with ideas on how to improve mental health care,” Vasan said. “The Innovation Lab will teach people these principles so they can turn their ideas into sustainable solutions.”

Vasan is assembling a panel of judges and 40 innovation leaders from a variety of backgrounds to work with the teams of finalists. Beyond psychiatry, they hail from areas like business, technology, nonprofits, and government.

“We’re going to objectively pick a winner, but I think a big part of this is about the process — bringing people together to think about this and gain different perspectives,” Wong said.

A crucial part of finding solutions to issues in mental health care is involving people who have firsthand experience with mental illness and substance abuse. Tristan Gorrindo, the association’s director of education, argued that patients have never been as involved in their own care as they are now, especially as ways of self-monitoring health — including through trackers like FitBits and Apple Watches — continues to grow.



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