Why our best intentions for mental health tech fall short

4 min read
Damien Terwagne
  •  May 19, 2021
Link copied to clipboard

Inside Design will commemorate the year’s cultural moments and holidays through the theme of ‘Looking Back for a More Inclusive Future.’ Each month, we will explore the intersection of design and history through commissioned illustrations and articles. In observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, Damien Terwagne discusses why tech solutions often replicate the blockers to mental health care parity rather than solving them. Illustration by Ray Dak Lam (IG: @raydaklam).

Our mental health affects every aspect of our lives—from how easily we jump out of bed in the morning, to how difficult we find falling asleep at night. With a large market ripe for disruption (according to the National Institute of Health, an estimated 26% of Americans have a diagnosable mental disorder), it’s no surprise the tech industry has taken notice. While tech has done a great job at making mental health care more accessible over the past decade, it doesn’t mean they’ve made it more effective.

For example, despite online therapy provider TalkSpace’s $1.4 billion IPO in January 2021, just a few months ago, New York  detailed the immense problems their users face when using the app. I’m one of the many people deeply invested in using technology to solve the real issues behind mental health care accessibility. I think, despite our best intentions though, tech falls short. Why? Because mental health problems cannot be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution. Attempts so far have just been digitizing our already-limiting analogue approach.

Looking back

We’ve come a long way since artist Tony Robert-Fleury’s painted a French psychiatrist freeing the Insane from their chains in the 18th century at a Paris hospital, depicting that struggles with mental health are not a crime. A new era for Americans came in 1960, when President John F. Kennedy enacted the Community Mental Health Act, bringing mental health out of the shadows of institutions and centering it in the communities of everyday life.

In the decades since, mental health care has been increasingly destigmatized. In 2010 the Affordable Care Act enhanced access to mental health care, but created a one-size-fits-most system in its wake to handle this increased demand. While research is getting closer to focusing on the similarities between mental disorders, care is also still limited by arbitrary insurance requirements as dictated by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This efficient, automated approach doesn’t provide room to navigate any contextual variations — differences in age, socioeconomic status, geography, sexual orientation, gender identities, family history, belief structures, family structures, etc. In other words, the effects that largely affect access to care.

The technology we design has so far centered this one-size-fits-most approach to mental health care, too, replicating the same constraints to effective care at scale over and over again.

A more inclusive future

One day soon we might be able to single-handedly use design thinking and technology to solve mental health issues in the way we’ve been trying to; but until then, we need to be realistic, not idealistic, about the current cultural limitations we have in the tech world. In other words: We have been scaling mental health care, but we have not created the conditions to help it scale effectively.

Part of the answer might be to explore solutions that come at it from different angles. Maybe we need tools to help better educate society towards removing the stigmas associated with the need for mental health care. Or maybe instead of outsourcing mental health benefits, companies should analyze how their work affects their employees, and create tools to help alleviate the stressors they create. For example, Microsoft recently analyzed data on their newly-remote workforce to bring light to the challenges companies feel but cannot see: those that affect employee well-being, especially during times of crisis.

Right now, we can’t use design thinking to solve mental health care’s problems, but we can leverage it to create the cultural changes that would make impact at scale possible.


Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard