The Digital Issue

What Will the Future of Mental Health Care Bring?

In a short span of time, the pandemic has increased our awareness of the vulnerability of our mental health. Sitting squarely at the intersection of our physical health and external circumstances, we’ve seen how quickly our moods and behaviors can be impacted by circumstances and challenges, and we’ve also realized just how strong and resilient our minds can be.

But perhaps most importantly, we are now witnessing a shift in our thinking about mental health. Concerns around mental health and its treatment are finally taking more of a front seat in the mainstream of society.

These considerations put us in a better position, moving forward, to understand ourselves and the experiences we share, as well as the exciting leaps being made in research and treatments.

The field of mental health care is ever-evolving, which might leave us wondering where we’re headed next. As we step forward into a world of less stigma, more understanding, and fewer barriers to care, we ask: what could the future of mental health care look like?

Therapy, Reimagined

Almost overnight, pandemic restrictions forced most daily operations online, and therapy was no different. Countless individuals adjusted to attending appointments remotely, while still more decided to seek help for the first time.

Therapy offered electronically not only increased accessibility in some circumstances, it has also been proven to be just as effective as in-person treatment. And it could be here to stay.

“People aren’t returning to the couch,” says Priya Singhvi, LPC. “Covid-19 dramatically affected the practice of talk therapy by incorporating wide scale adoption of technology. Many clinicians have made the choice to continue treating people remotely. Now that telehealth has taken off, there’s no going back.”

Singhvi serves as lead therapist and director of clinical operations at Rey, a virtual reality-enabled mental health platform that focuses on phobias, social anxiety, and PTSD. With this form of treatment, patients do wear VR headsets, but that doesn’t mean their therapist looks like their favorite Marvel character or they’re chatting from a Louis XIV chaise at Versailles.

drawing of person wearing VR headset

Verywell / Josh Seong

Rather, the headset safely allows for exposure therapies that recreate a triggering environment or experience so that they can be treated within a similar experience to the one they’re struggling with, whether that’s speaking on stage, walking across a bridge or inhabiting a small enclosed space. The modality can also help patients process trauma or triggering memories in a safe, controlled environment.

Priya Singhvi, LPC

If we’re serious about addressing this crisis, we have to let go of the idea that therapy can only be done face-to-face and recognize the huge gains provided by user-friendly automated digital interventions.

— Priya Singhvi, LPC

It’s important to note that VR therapy isn’t necessarily new. In recent years, studies have shown this method can help effectively treat conditions associated with anxiety, fear, and trauma. But as rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are on the rise, especially among health care workers, Singhvi points out that a VR therapy platform you can access at home takes telehealth “to the next level” by truly prioritizing patients—they can get help when and where they need it, and it’s often more affordable.

In a telehealth setting, once a patient seeks out this form of treatment, they receive a VR headset and dial into scheduled sessions with their care provider. Patients are then instructed to work through the therapeutic program at their own pace and maintain check-ins with their provider along the way.

This kind of self-paced therapy not only provides freedom for the patient, but can also help to bridge the gap between the growing need for mental health services and limited supply of health professionals.

“The reality is there will never be enough high-quality providers to meet the growing demand for mental health services,” Singhvi says. “If we’re serious about addressing this crisis, we have to let go of the idea that therapy can only be done face-to-face and recognize the huge gains provided by user-friendly automated digital interventions.”

The Emerging Field of Nutritional Psychology

One major part of anyone’s daily health routine is the food they consume, and while it’s common to adjust your diet in the interest of your physical health, the impact of our eating habits on our mental health is often overlooked. The budding field of nutritional psychology aims to change that.

There is lots of scientific evidence to support a strong connection between the gut and the brain. In this cyclical relationship, each can affect the other, so it’s not difficult to conclude that what you put in your stomach can impact your mood, behavior and mental health.

In her recent book, “This Is Your Brain on Food,” nutritional psychiatrist Uma Naidoo, MD, discusses this “gut-brain romance” and provides insight into the ways that food can combat symptoms of conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD and OCD. While courses of medication and psychotherapy are the mainstay of treatment for these disorders, failing to consider a patient’s diet can do them a great disservice.

Uma Naidoo, MD

In psychiatry, we are finally beginning to talk about the power of food as medicine for mental health.

— Uma Naidoo, MD

“The problem is bigger than psychiatry, extending to medicine as a whole,” Naidoo writes. “Despite the huge number of health issues that relate to diet, it may sound farfetched, but many patients don’t hear food advice from their doctors, let alone their psychiatrists.... Nutrition education for doctors is limited.”

Through incorporating food into treatment plans that could include other therapeutic modalities, nutritional psychology presents a more holistic approach to mental wellness. While the field has been defined, organizations like The Center for Nutritional Psychology are working to build methodology and develop formalized curriculum for placement in universities within the next ten years.

“In psychiatry, we are finally beginning to talk about the power of food as medicine for mental health,” Naidoo writes.

The New Frontier of Psychedelics

We can’t talk about nontraditional modes of therapy—or advancements in mental health treatment—without discussing psychedelic drugs.

Psychedelics have been a hot topic in mental health research for some time, and more recent studies have yielded some promising results: Patients with major depressive disorder have seen symptoms improve with the help of psilocybin and there is some research to support MDMA-assisted therapy as safe and effective in treating severe, chronic PTSD. Evidence also points to the potential for psychedelics to help treat conditions like disordered eating and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

But due to the stigmatization of psychedelic compounds over the course of the last century, many people remain wary of the mind-altering experience these drugs can induce. As a result, there has been a push for developing a treatment that offers the same benefits of a psychedelic drug without being, well, psychedelic.

drawing of person lying on a couch talking to a therapist

Verywell / Laura Porter

This would be a big mistake, according to Brian Pilecki, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Portland Psychotherapy in Portland, Oregon. Pilecki explains that the separation of the drug’s biological and psychological components goes against both traditional and contemporary scientific consensus that a change in consciousness is fundamental to the therapeutic process. “What we know about psychedelics from clinical research suggests that the subjective experience, including shifts in perception and consciousness, are an important element to the therapeutic outcomes that we are seeing,” Pilecki says.

Brian Pilecki, PhD

Learning to face challenging emotions or memories can be vital in teaching participants that they don’t need to be afraid of their inner experience.

— Brian Pilecki, PhD

It’s those uncomfortable emotions and memories brought forth during a facilitated psychedelic experience that a therapist will ultimately guide their patients through. The end goal is not to eliminate all negative feelings, but rather improve the individual’s ability to be wholly present. Pilecki says, “Learning to face challenging emotions or memories can be vital in teaching participants that they don’t need to be afraid of their inner experience.”

There is still much to learn about how psychedelics might factor into mental health treatment, but so far the clinical research is extremely promising.

Let There Be Light

While there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, neuroscientists and researchers work tirelessly to advance our understanding of the disease and develop an effective treatment. One area of this research is light therapy.

Amyloid plaques that build up in the brain at abnormal levels are a cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Networks of cells in the brain have been noted to oscillate in unison in the presence of the right kind of stimuli. There has been some speculation that gamma waves boost the activity of the cells in the brain that clear these amyloid plaques.

Research has shown that exposure to lights and sounds in the gamma frequency of around 40 Hz induces these oscillations in the brain. The method is being studied both as a treatment for and preventive measure against Alzheimer’s disease.

Neurobiologist Veronica Price, co-founder and chief knowledge officer at BRIGHT, notes that neuroscientists at leading brain research institutes are focusing their efforts in this area of research.

“Just this month, reports were published on two studies led by researchers from MIT and Yale at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference,” Price says. “The studies examined Alzheimer’s patients who were exposed to 40Hz light and sound for one hour each day over a period of weeks.”

This research hasn’t yet been published for the public, but a recent review determined light therapy an effective physical form of therapy and “a new direction for research into treatments for [neurodegenerative disorders],” but requires further research to determine true efficacy. Price says both studies presented at the AAIC 2021 showed that while light therapy didn’t reverse or stop brain degeneration, it slowed the process down by at least 65%.

“These studies are the first scientific findings offering safe, noninvasive treatment for Alzheimer’s disease,” Price says.

Bolstering Mental Health

We’re witnessing a collective shift toward not only prioritizing mental health in our daily lives but laying stronger foundations for healthy mental health systems. Rather than slapping Band-Aid solutions on the problems we see today, some organizations are actually taking the time understand and address the roots of the issues.

One of these issues is a leading cause of death in the United States.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has a plan to significantly reduce the country’s suicide rate. Project2025, an ongoing nationwide initiative to reduce the rate of suicide by 20% in the next four years. The AFSP is focusing their interventions within health care systems, emergency departments, correctional institutions and firearm communities in order to educate and improve screening and preventive measures in the hope of saving lives.

With similar goals in mind, the Federal Communications Commission announced that next year, a new nationwide three-digit hotline will be introduced for mental health crisis and suicide prevention services. This number, 988, will be a simpler alternative to the current suicide prevention hotline number, 1-800-273-TALK.

Adopting an easily memorizable number for mental health crisis, specifically, will eliminate some of the confusion experienced by a person in crisis or someone caring for a loved one in crisis. This can also prevent the potential dangers of calling 911 and prompting the intervention of law enforcement officers, who are often ill-equipped to deal with symptoms of mental illness and can escalate a situation, causing further harm.

Jennifer La Guardia, PhD

Employers need to change the conversation on mental health and make it the norm instead of the exception.

— Jennifer La Guardia, PhD

As measures are taken to place greater emphasis on access to mental health care, it’s crucial that the places where we spend most of our time follow suit.

Over the course of the past few decades and with the rise of corporate culture, the workplace has become notoriously toxic for mental health. But the pandemic has sparked a change, as more people than ever have reported experiencing burnout, anxiety and depression as a result of their work schedules and environments.

“Employers need to change the conversation on mental health and make it the norm instead of the exception,” says behavioral scientist and clinical psychologist Jennifer La Guardia, PhD. “Oftentimes, we hear the importance of self care without discussing what this looks like.”

La Guardia serves as director of clinical product and behavior science at Omada Health, a digital health company that partners with organizations to promote employees’ mental and behavioral health. She urges that simply providing phone numbers and websites is not enough. Moving forward, employers must go the extra mile in assuring employees understand how to navigate the system and receive the care they need.

This revolution in workplace mental health care is underway, as companies are bringing conversations around mental health to the fore, adopting more flexible schedules and implementing programs that offer telemedicine and app-based services. Some companies are even adding on-site mental health care services to their office spaces.

“It’s crucial that [employers] provide resources that are supportive of the whole person and allow individuals to prioritize their health,” La Guardia says.

Whether we’re at work or at home, society’s efforts to weave mental self-care into all aspects of daily life will likely continue. With deeper conversations about our collective mental health, easier access to care through telehealth services and breakthrough treatments that are both more inclusive and affordable, the future of mental health care sounds like something to look forward to.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Harvard Health Publishing. The gut-brain connection. Published April 19, 2021.

  5. Davis AK, Barrett FS, May DG, et al. Effects of psilocybin-assisted therapy on major depressive disorder: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2021;78(5):481. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.3285

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  9. Liu YL, Gong SY, Xia ST, et al. Light therapy: a new option for neurodegenerative diseases. Chin Med J (Engl). 2020;134(6):634-645. doi:10.1097/cm9.0000000000001301