By Brian Mullen, Ph.D


When was the last time you checked on your mental health? Have you ever gone in for a mental health check up, seen a psychiatrist or psychologist? Since we were kids we know we should go for our yearly physical check up and we go to the dentist every 6 months for a cleaning. What do you do for your mental health? Would you even know where to start to get a “check up” for the most important aspect of us our minds?

Mental health is the largest unmet medical need of our society. At any one time over 1 in 4 people have a diagnosable mental illness and if you include addiction it is over 50% of the population. Mental health impacts every part of what we do, so much so it is impossible to get a good estimate of the cost. Take anxiety based disorders, over 40 million people have an anxiety based disorder right now in the US. About 50% don’t get any treatment and only about 15% get minimum adequate care. Yet we know that anxiety leads to other medical conditions, lost days of work, and has many other side effects sometimes very severe.

Yet there has been relatively little innovation in mental health care in decades if not in the last 100 years relative to medicine. Even now with the explosion of technology creating the digital and consumer health industries mental health tech has been greatly overlooked and just recently starting to get interest from investors. Now more than ever solutions are needed in mental health and for the first time with the passing of the mental health parity act and the affordable healthcare act mental health is being put on par with physical health creating a tremendous opportunity for innovation covering all types of technologies from apps, telemedicine, devices, medication and other services.

The great challenge historically to innovate in mental health has been the lack of knowledge and ability to measure. However, with the technology explosion in the last 30 years we now have a much better understanding of how the brain works, tools to image the brain in real time and now with the on body sensors we have in wearables we can collect physiology and behavior metrics to better understand mental illness. Again, now is a great time for innovation in mental healthcare not just in sensors and monitoring but using that data to drive other technology solutions.

However, we must understand that mental health is not the same as consumer health or medicine, we cannot just port what we do in those areas to be used in mental health. They will fail. I have spent the last 11 years studying and trying to learn how to quickly and efficiently develop commercially viable person-centered evidence based medical devices from bench to bedside to help meet the unmet medical needs for people with neurological disorders and mental illnesses. One of the key lessons I learned from the experience is what I was taught in my engineering classes about design for products for “typical” consumer goods or even for assistive technology cannot be ported over to the mental health field. In the article I wrote, Engineering Better Mental Health Solutions, I talk about the need for innovation and more specifically the need for more engineers in mental healthcare.

Finally, we need to advocate for improvements in mental health – it impacts all of us. Since writing the article I have also started to advocate and drafted a bill with my state Representative, Paul McMurtry, to have the state support innovation in mental healthcare: The bill is currently in committee so you can still reach out and let the committee members know that the state needs to support innovation in mental health care. This is our greatest health challenge and now is the time to address it and the only way we will be successful is if we innovate.

Brian Mullen PhotoBrian Mullen, Ph.D. Innovation Strategy Manager, Brigham Innovation Hub at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Founder & CEO of Therapeutic Systems. Brian gave a TEDx talk on his research related to the design of products for people with mental illness and the need for more innovation in this area.