What Role Could Wearable Tech Play in the Future of Mental Health Care?

Woman in an all white bed holding up her hand looking at a health tracker

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Key Takeaways

  • Wearable devices are helping people deal with mental health conditions.
  • New technology may help wearables detect potential mental health reactions in seconds.
  • People who decide to use wearables should consider the pros and cons before using them as a method of care.

Today, one in four Americans ages 18 and older has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Stress has become a mental health crisis on a national scale. People are looking for ways to relieve the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other conditions in a healthy and proactive way.

Getting exercise, journaling, medication, and therapy are all known strategies, but what about the option of a wearable device that monitors your brain activity similar to a fitness tracker?

Several devices exist to help people deal with mental health issues and the resulting symptoms, such as lack of sleep, anger, and frustration. Bracelets, headgear, and smartphone apps all use varying technology methods to help users manage the mental and emotional symptoms of stress and anxiety. They benefit the user, and even mental healthcare more broadly.

“The wearables for mental health can help address the shortages in healthcare providers for mental health and would reduce the number of intractable cases that need last resort measures, such as invasive brain implants,” explains Rose T. Faghih, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, New York University.

By sensing signals that the brain and body provide, current wearables give feedback to help the wearer manage symptoms. It can take several minutes to determine what’s happening then react. And a new study, published in PLoS Computational Biology, adds a dimension to wearables that not only read the body’s mental health distress signals in seconds, but provides immediate feedback and calming mechanisms.

While technology advances to assist the user with mental health conditions, there are things to consider before deciding if a wearable is right for you. We look at the emerging technology for wearables, how it differs from what is presently on the market, and what these products mean for the future of mental health care.

The Latest Research and Products on the Market

A 2021 review of 18 studies showed that several different types of wearables are effective in detecting symptoms of depression. The devices that were a part of the study measured a number of components, including the temperature of a person’s skin, their heart rate, and monitored their motion during activity. Other studies found that devices could detect stress and anxiety symptoms by monitoring heart rate and breathing.  

Users are having success with some products using current technology. Apollo wearables use touch therapy to calm your nervous system. The more often you use it, the better it gets at helping you.

Oura, a company that makes rings to monitor your sleep and other biometrics, notes that it senses changes in your body associated with stress. The wearable device then adjusts your daily goals and gives you feedback.

Muse offers a “digital sleeping pill” that can help you fall back asleep if you wake up in the middle of the night. It also provides biofeedback information.  

While these wearables take steps to calm the wearer, the findings of this current study take reading the body’s signals for stress and anxiety to another level.

David A. Merrill, MD, PhD

This would allow real time individual information about how the brain is processing and reacting to stressful events.

— David A. Merrill, MD, PhD

“This study represents the next step or next generation of biofeedback monitoring. This would allow real time individual information about how the brain is processing and reacting to stressful events. This builds on decades of work looking at physiological response to stress,” explains David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center, Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

Skin Sensing Technology

The latest research shows how electrodermal activity (EDA) occurs in a person’s skin. That activity is influenced by the brain activity that deals with emotions. Thus, what’s going on in the skin is a result of what is happening in the brain.

In response to emotional arousal events, our sympathetic nervous system sends some pulse-like signals to our sweat glands. Then, as the result of variations in emotional arousal and sympathetic nervous system activation, there are tiny changes in sweat activity,” explains Dr. Faghih, who is the senior author of the study.

The technology, called MINDWATCH, can detect those changes in seconds. The technology has not been placed in wearable form yet; however, its creation is a significant development.

“This algorithm is very fast and can be implemented in wearable devices because of its low computation. This will also help us to maintain the privacy of the user. Instead of sending the recorded signal to a cloud for processing, the whole processing can be carried out in a wearable watch without any risk of privacy concerns,” states Rafiul Amin, PhD, DSP Characterization Engineer, Aeva. Dr. Amin is the first author of the study.

The latest technology lets users know that their body is starting to have a reaction to what’s happening. With that knowledge and the calming response of music, it can keep their reaction from escalating.

But before using a wearable or to help regulate your symptoms, you want to weigh whether it’s right for you.

Pros and Cons

Experts hope that wearables will help reduce the cost of mental health care to the patient as well as for the system in general. There are a lot of other benefits that the devices and the new technology provide.

Wearables allow a person to take charge of their own mental health care. Whether they determine better sleep patterns or use the feedback to know what causes them to feel stressed out, the devices can be beneficial. They also have the ability to give good data to healthcare professionals and therapists to help them treat their patients.

But there are drawbacks to wearables and the latest technology.

Avishek Choudhury, PhD

When it comes to mental health…we need to consider whether a patient is willing to take care of himself or herself.

— Avishek Choudhury, PhD

When it comes to mental health … we need to consider whether a patient is willing to take care of himself or herself," says Avishek Choudhury, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering, West Virginia University. “If the user cannot comprehend what it means, what the device is telling them, they usually get more anxious,” he adds.

Despite the limitations, the future for use of wearables in the mental health space looks promising. Devices are empowering users to take steps to help themselves. As technology continues to evolve, it could be a win-win for users and healthcare professionals alike.

“[Wearables] bolster the ability that all of us have to self-monitor,” Dr. Merrill concludes. They give you a chance to respond to it before it gets out of control. It allows you to be more mindful about what’s happening to you.”

What This Means For You

Wearables are empowering users to be aware of mental health challenges and take measures to help deal with their symptoms. The latest technology may even help stop an oncoming reaction before it escalates. While the research looks promising, weigh the pros and cons of a specific device to know if it’s right for you.

5 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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  2. American Psychological Association. Stress in America 2020.

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