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Precision Mental Healthcare: Our Brains Deserve Rigorous Measures

Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm, the World Health Organization’s dashboard reports more than 750 million cumulative cases and over 6.8 million deaths globally. In addition to the physical health consequence, the COVID-19 crisis came with a “parallel pandemic”: an unprecedented worsening of mental health, the human and financial consequences of which are massive, and unlikely to decrease anytime soon.

An OECD report indicates that mental health services were already overstretched among its member-states prior to the pandemic. “Prevalence of anxiety and depression increased and, in some countries, even doubled” because of the COVID crisis. Many countries therefore made decisive efforts and investments to deploy mental health services at scale, along with taking exceptional job and income protection measures, “thereby reducing mental health distress for some.”

One of the unintended (yet not so surprising) consequences of this parallel mental health pandemic was the proliferation of coaches/self-proclaimed experts in well-being, happiness, and mental health with little or no qualification whatsoever in psychology, behavioural or brain sciences. Many took advantage of the legitimate concerns corporate leaders and managers had for their employees to oversell mental-health snake oil. The methods they sold to HR departments relied at best on people’s ability to self-assess their mental state and fatigue, and levels of distraction or stress by filling-up questionnaires, mood meters, and surveys on a more or less regular basis.

Newsflash: Surveys and questionnaires are not enough to capture the complexity of the human mind and what it experiences during crises or otherwise; there is more than 40 years of peer-reviewed scientific literature that documents the limitations and flaws of self-reports.

Let us imagine for a second that we are not talking about a mental health crisis but a cardiovascular one. Would you, as the leader of an organisation, trust a coach and his/her questionnaires to investigate how your employees self-assess the working of their heart and how clogged their arteries are? Wouldn’t you prefer an actual trained cardiologist using scientific measures of heart activity and blood analyses? So why do so many leaders spend significant amounts of money on methods that are not developed and delivered by psychologists and neuroscientists?

One could have argued a decade ago that questionnaires and surveys were the only scalable tools. However, this is no longer the case. Affordable off-the-shelf wearables and apps powered by algorithmic solutions exist that track (neuro)physiological measures scientifically and, therefore, more rigorously inform mental health effort and behavioural interventions than just questionnaires.

For more than 20 years, I have been working on assessing the gap between what people report and what their bodies actually experience, thanks to cognitive, biometric, physiological and brain measures at scale. One of the consistent findings is how inaccurate the level of stress people self-report is compared to what is found when measured with neurophysiological tools and methods. We all agree that the brain plays a key role in our mental health, right? Hence, leaders should stop falling for the promises of opportunistic individuals claiming that they can capture the workings of our minds with a handful of questions and nothing else.

The best way for leaders of organisations to show how much they respect and care about their employees is to invest in (neuro)scientifically informed and validated solutions to improve both their physical and mental health.

People’s opinion and feedback on how they feel are important. But they are not enough to inform mental health services. The combination of rigorous science, technology, and artificial intelligence offers unique insights on how people truly feel and unprecedented levels of personalisation of interventions.

Let the era of precision mental healthcare begin!

Prof. Olivier Oullier is a neuroscientist and the co-founder of Inclusive Brains