It was five years after the Wright brothers’ now legendary flight in 1903, when the general public finally took notice.
There is nothing unique or even surprising about this lag. Technological progress is rarely as climactic as our history lessons claim, and rarely as romantic as animated on film.
The lag is natural. Before a major breakthrough is deemed legitimate, the supporting evidence must be reviewed. This takes time. It can then be years before the public is ready to envision — let alone welcome — the future, as inventors do.
In the case of flight, it took a public demonstration in Paris in 1908 to convince people that a new era of aeronautics was coming into focus on the horizon. It was longer still before people could appreciate how aeronautics would dramatically shrink the world and give birth to a new level of global interdependence.
There is another new era in our midst today, on the horizon of mental healthcare. Soon, I believe, every human will have access to clinically effective, quantifiable, and personalised medicine — medicine exceeding the current standard of care available at world-leading institutions.
If I am right about this new era, then what might be the “first flight” that leads the way? A contender, I argue, is a humble research study completed in 2016 by Katie Walsh, Norm Farb, and myself (Walsh et al., 2019). Could our work be a first glimpse of the imminent revolution in mental healthcare? Allow me to explain and then you can be the judge.
Nearly a billion people have a documented mental illness today. That’s around one in eight people worldwide. As the leading cause of disability globally, mental illness’ contribution to loss of life and loss of life quality has been steadily increasing for decades, relative to all other forms of disease combined.
Part of the reason why mental illness now outpaces other disease, and has become the top global healthcare priority, is due to the heroic successes in treating and eradicating communicable diseases through soap, antimicrobials, and vaccines. We have also come a long way in curing or managing cancer, cardiovascular, and metabolic diseases, with state-of-the art combinations in surgery, radiation, and pharmacotherapy. In other words, advances in modern medicine have had profound effect on reducing other priority diseases worldwide.
What’s becoming clear, now, is that mental illness is a complex, cumulative, and often debilitating health condition exacerbated by our every day interactions in the world. There is strong evidence, for instance, that seemingly benign (and often necessary) aspects of modern life can take a significant negative toll on the brain.
Compared to other health conditions, treatment for mental illness presents several unique challenges, most of which are linked to how mental illness manifests in the brain, an organ routinely cited as the most complex, individualised structure in the known universe. Due to this complexity, treatment for mental illness must be personalised; due to the sheer magnitude of the problem, treatment must be scalable.
So what can be done? What kind of transformational technological advancements are needed to simultaneously deliver personalised healthcare for a billion people?
This is a question I have been asking myself for 25 years. I can remember standing in an apple orchard one night as a teenager, contemplating the impact of mental illness on myself and those I knew. The orchard was covered in a thick blanket of snow, and as I watched the colossal snowflakes settling on the branches in the moonlight, I also felt the snow collect on my shoulders. I wondered then about what rests on my shoulders — what role I must play in solving the mental health crisis. At that moment I realised something I still believe today: the burden of solving the crisis belongs on my shoulders as much as it does on anyone else’s.
This question — the “big” question of how to deliver personalised mental healthcare to billions — has guided the founding and growth of Mobio Interactive.
In 2015, when we were getting our first meditation app off the ground, Katie Walsh proposed a study to determine if our app, with its embedded digital biomarkers, could outperform placebo in a randomised controlled trial examining mental health in young adults. At first, I thought it was a Hail Mary project. But after I saw the data, I knew we had a chance at answering our big question about mental healthcare delivery. It now seemed possible to work toward a digital solution, at scale, that measures impact on individuals in real time — to personalise at scale.
I knew that if we kept building on the results of Katie’s study, that one day soon every human could have access to clinically effective, measured, and personalised medicine. The first evidence of personalised+scalable mental healthcare — like that first flight demonstration in 1908 — was here.
A new era in mental healthcare is coming into focus on the horizon.
This article is part of a series:
4. The More Subtle Message from the First Successful Placebo-Controlled Trial with a Meditation App (Coming soon)