06 Aprile 2008

COMPUTERS FOR MENTAL HEALTH. An interview with Gavin Doherty (Trinity College Dublin)

Will computers ever help us to get better when we are depressed or could they more generally be employed to help treating the numerous existing mental illnesses? At CHI 2008, Gavin Doherty (Trinity College Dublin) has organized a specific workshop on Technology in Mental Health which takes place today. I've talked with him to learn why and how computers can do good to our mental health:

Why using computers in mental health and what can they do to improve mental health?
”The scale of the problem facing mental health services worldwide is enormous. Depression is now the leading cause of disability according to the World Health Organization. Approximately a million people die by suicide every year, and 10 to 20 times more people attempt suicide worldwide. Treatment is possible, yet many people do not get the required help. This can be because they have difficulty in accessing the treatment or because of the stigma surrounding mental illness.
There are lots of ways in which technology can be of help. If technology can help clients to talk to therapists they can benefit more from the treatment, leading to a more successful result. Other people in rural or remote areas may benefit from receiving therapy online. With Virtual Reality therapy for phobias (the team of Giuseppe Riva in Milan is working on this), the exposure can be controlled in a way which is not possible in reality. Technology could also be helpful for getting support from other people in a similar situation. Although this presents some difficulties, if people can understand that many other people suffer the same problems, it can be very helpful. Technology may also help in educating people about mental health and helping them to monitor their progress after treatment. “

How does human-computer interaction changes in this particular domain?
”HCI methods are mainly based on a high degree of end user involvement. Although we can get a lot of participation from therapists, the ethical constraints and regulations mean it is very difficult to get input from the people actually suffering from mental illness. Also, many of the issues faced are different from other domains - how do you encourage someone to think positively?  How do you reduce stigma? How do you make a therapeutic application interesting? “

Could you give me a few examples of particularly interesting work that is being presented at your workshop?
”Mental health care professionals face particular problems in engaging young people with therapy. Adolescents can be confrontational, and may not want to participate in the therapy. Some of the work considers the problem of how to make therapy more interesting to young people. Work will be presented which looks at the use of mobile technology in mental health, as the mobile phone provides a pervasive and increasingly powerful platform for delivering applications. Mobile technology can even incorporate physiological sensing. We also have some very interesting work looking at technology to help with the care autistic children.”

What sorts of new applications do you imagine for the future, thanks to the research that is being discussed at your workshop?
”Much of the work presented at the workshop takes only the first steps to investigating this area. The technology must be driven by the needs of those suffering from mental illness, and there is much work to be done in targeting specific problems, for example eating disorders, or suicide among young men. Every technology presented at the workshop needs to be developed further, but this will require collaboration between technologists, HCI researchers and mental health professionals. By holding the workshop we are trying to foster this collaboration.”

© 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.