Nordic digital innovation offers a proactive approach to mental health

Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to support people suffering mental health issues – and digital technology can help

The impacts of Covid-19 have had a detrimental effect on people’s mental health, but there is now hope that the events of 2020-21 will trigger a longer-term, positive transformation.

Feelings of isolation or helplessness, struggles to overcome or mitigate pre-existing conditions and illnesses, and even the direct health ramifications of the coronavirus have contributed to the wealth of mental health challenges. This often includes a delay between feelings of negativity, the later impact on people’s lives, the decision to seek help, and then actually receiving care from a slow and rigid system.

“This healthcare system is all geared around diagnosis and reactions, but by that point, things have often gone too far,” said David Brudo, CEO and co-founder of Remente, a Swedish tech startup born from Brudo’s own mental health challenges, when he noticed how slow and reactive the traditional sector was.

Remente’s digital tool instead focuses on identifying signs of mental ill-health from its earliest stages, so as to implement lifestyle mechanisms that will either mitigate or allay the impacts.

“To actually solve a mental health issue, you need to catch it at the beginning for each individual, and there simply aren’t the resources to do that through traditional systems,” said Brudo. “Digital apps, by comparison, can give people an immediate insight into why they feel a certain way, and how to take steps to cope. The data they generate then helps us to improve our service, too.

“It’s a virtuous cycle that can’t be achieved through embedded methods, and I’d like to think that the impacts of the pandemic, when people were physically unable to see psychologists, or weren’t being looked at in time through telemedicine, will have made authorities aware of digital’s holistic benefits.”

Cultural tug-of-war in the Nordics

War On Cancer is another Nordic startup built from experience. CEO and co-founder Fabian Bolin created the digital platform after his own recovery from cancer posed as many mental challenges as it did physical challenges. Last September, the company went live with its first-ever health study which leveraged its data-driven portal to discover how people were coping with the pandemic.

“Beyond the obvious tragedy of many lost lives, I sincerely believe these strange times have paved the way for a new wave of thinking,” said Bolin. “Meditation, inner work, stillness and reflection have been a big focus for me, and I’m beginning to feel the positive effects.”

And a new way of thinking is exactly what is called for. While the Nordics are usually renowned for their ability to innovate in niche spaces ahead of the curve, there is actually an obstacle on the mental health front which Bolin believes is due to a culture of people not expressing their emotions fully.

There is a subsequent tug-of-war between the region’s cultural inclination to innovate, as is seen through these tech startups, and the wider ecosystem around them, which isn’t quite ready yet.

Brudo added: “In the UK with the NHS, we are seeing the promotion and even funding of international initiatives, as they begin to realise the potential of innovation in this space. However, here in the Nordics, there’s not much support from authorities or governments to bring tech into healthcare.”

He said the telemedicine approach is still more common, in which traditional therapy methods are conducted virtually, rather than allowing digital to disrupt entirely. 

“Support from society, institutions and governments aren’t really matching the innovation power and the solutions being presented,” said Brudo. “That’s why many providers such as ourselves are gaining more traction abroad, as there’s not the same incentivisation locally.”

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Despite the current hesitation when it comes to digital aid in mental health, regardless of the Covid-19 acceleration effect, there is a consensus of hope that the industry will transform eventually. Quite simply, it has to.

“We see a lot of professionals using digital solutions to reach their clients, but in reality only 25% of people with problems were getting help even before Covid-19,” said Thorbjorg Vigfusdóttir, a psychologist-turned-CEO and founder of Kara Connect, an Icelandic consultation platform enabling health and welfare practitioners to securely connect with clients to provide access to remote therapy services. “An even smaller proportion of those get the right kind of support.”

Vigfusdóttir is not alone in this assessment. Bolin added: “In general, there is a lack of resources and time within most healthcare systems today, largely due to the lack of digitisation. We still have a system where medical records get faxed between hospitals because the different IT systems don’t interoperate. With a standard this low, it’s not hard to see why things move slowly.

“Secondly, there is little incentive for hospitals to focus on mental health, because it’s not clearly defined as a goal. Survival, the ability to function physically, and ‘patient quality of life’ are the three goals, and the latter hasn’t really been properly defined. That all comes from a lack of understanding of mental health, which digital tools can attain through the data they collate directly and quickly.”

The future of mental healthcare

This resistance has been the biggest challenge for all three companies mentioned above. They know the significance of the solution, they see the benefits, and the past year has hit home their general importance for society. The hope now is that the famous Nordic innovation can be matched by a similar Nordic openness to change.

The result of embedding digital systems into the mental health conversation won’t just be a reactive response to people already in need, but a proactive ecosystem directly tailored to improving people’s lives and lifestyles.

“To increase efficiency, we need to use digital tools such as Kara to better understand what really is helping, and by reviewing the outcomes in order to make better decisions for citizens in need,” said Vigfusdóttir. “Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen resistance to digital solutions, despite the fact that they’ve been tried and tested. I think this is partly because of the lack of discussion and retraining on what the future of healthcare should look like.

“Make no mistake, though – no matter how slow, change will happen, because it needs to.”

The attitude towards private tech solutions has improved over the past couple of years. That is important, said Bolin at War on Cancer, because it will be the people who have positive experiences with these tools that demand a more comprehensive approach from the industry as a whole.

“The healthcare system must react and transform its production-oriented approach to a service-oriented type of service, where customer happiness becomes the goal,” he said.

Brudo concluded: “An epidemic really helps people to stop and think. Working from home, shopping online, socialising through digital apps – it’s a chance for people to see the benefits of change, and hopefully it will turn into something positive for the future of mental health, too.”

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