As we head into 2022 (and I hope that this year will be better than the last two), I wanted to look ahead and share my excitement for where the field of psychiatry is headed.

Technology is now front and center in almost everything we do, from our interactions at work, at school, our social lives and how we consume and share information. The year 2022 will certainly be another big year for laying the additional groundwork and strengthening the technological transformation of mental health care.

Late in 2020, research done by my group showed the potential power that Facebook has on spotlighting digital signals associated with emerging psychiatric symptoms. We suggested that language used and profile pictures could help inform treatment recommendations. We repeated similar findings in several other online platforms this past year, including Google, Twitter, and Instagram. And this is just the beginning.

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In 2021, colleagues like Sunny X. Tang outlined how speech can provide clues to someone’s mental health. Harnessing and capturing someone’s speech to analyze language patterns and word selection is quickly becoming a usable tool to identify changes in the brain connected to underlying psychiatric disorders.

We have seen attention placed on social media with news of Instagram for kids being put on hold. And fortunately, early detection and greater support for our youth have been identified as a critical and addressable need.

Where are we headed? What do we need?
We are on the right track. Soon technology and the data it enables, whether that is social media, internet search histories, wearables, or speech analysis will be used to better inform mental health professionals about a person’s mental state, inform diagnoses and treatment recommendations and support better more effective interventions. In psychiatry, we do not have x-rays or blood tests. We predominantly rely on subjective assessments, patient and family testimonials, and professional experiences. By further studying how to implement digital data into care we are on the cusp of merging our personalized digital footprints with psychiatry.

While we still need time to explore all the ethical implications of using this type of information and develop clear policies and plans surrounding integrating online behavior into a clinical setting, the future looks bright.

Every year the world evolves rapidly with new challenges facing us – particularly our youth. With proper funding, collaboration and vigorous research, tapping into technology to help improve our mental well-being is well within reach.

by Michael L. Birnbaum M.D.

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