Dr. Sandy Whitehouse
Canada is facing a mental health crisis that could overwhelm our institutions. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time either through their own experience or that of a family member, friend, or colleague. In any given year, one-in-five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. And by age 40, about 50 per cent of the population will either have or have had a mental illness. And while the impact of COVID infection is waning, the mental health aftershocks are upon us. Combined with provider burnout, traditional clinical support for those in need is just not feasible.
When it comes to mental illness, youth is a critical period: most people living with a mental illness see their symptoms begin before age 18 with approximately 20 per cent of Canadian youth affected by a mental illness or disorder. Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, children and adolescents have been experiencing even higher levels of anxiety, stress, depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance use.
Schools across the country are seeing the impact on student wellbeing and are struggling to find effective and efficient ways to identify students in need of support and make appropriate referrals. Untreated mental health issues tend to become more costly over time both to the individual and society. So, without proper resources, the problem is likely to get worse.
With Canadian Mental Health Week launching next week, now is a good time to shine a light on mental health and addiction. This year’s campaign highlights empathy, something we can all learn and use to help deal with mental illness.
As a former adolescent physician and medical director of emergency services at BC Children’s Hospital, I often worked in chaotic scenarios where decisions were made quickly based on the information at hand; I realized I was missing out on critical, sensitive data that had a direct impact on care.
Gaining truthful answers about delicate issues – such as drug use, sexuality, poverty, and other concerns – can be difficult. It is important to think of people’s contextual environment: the way you’re asking the questions, why you’re asking them, or how you’re going to be using the information. And when people share this personal information with you, the greatest benefit is that clinicians can accurately and discreetly help solve the patient’s problems.
But clinicians are already burnt out, overburdened and pressed for time. Gathering this information through traditional means is more time-consuming and less effective than using technology. The challenge is how to bring empathy, (this year’s theme for mental health) into digital tools. Applying a new concept, Digital Empathy, can improve care for those suffering from mental health and addiction problems. Digital Empathy applies the principles of empathy – compassion, cognition, and emotion – to user experience to improve results and efficiency. The goal of using Digital Empathy is to close critical communication gaps in healthcare, particularly when it comes to questions about gender, racial inequality, social determinants of health and mental health.
By incorporating Digital Empathy into the patient experience with validated screening assessments, clinicians receive higher quality data and increased patient engagement, leading to improved patient activation, better identification of actionable critical issues, and more appropriate treatment.
When healthcare providers have effective, empathetic, digital tools that reflect their values and care, there is a better quality of life for all. Using Digital Empathy can change how we identify and treat people suffering with mental health and addiction problems and help avert a crisis both for the patient and our communities.
Dr. Sandy Whitehouse is CEO and CMO of Vancouver, BC based Tickit Health and a former medical director of emergency services at BC Children’s Hospital.