Millions of people have turned to wearables to track their steps, monitor their heart rate and sleeping patterns, and more. For many of us, the fitness tracker is a constant companion. Should tracking our mental health be any different?

That was the theme of the latest #RBCDisruptors in advance of Mental Illness Awareness Week, which runs from September 30 to October 6 in Canada and the U.S.

Our conversation brought together former Olympian and mental health advocate Silken Laumann with two entrepreneurs — Sam Duboc and Dan Seider who believe technology can be harnessed to monitor mental health and provide more accessible treatment options.

Here’s some of what we learned:

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Stigma Remains a Major Obstacle to Seeking Treatment. Technology May Help.

Laumann, who revealed childhood emotional abuse in her 2014 memoir, Unsinkable, said she was hesitant to share those details for fear people would think differently about her. Until her book came out, Canadians’ perception of Laumann was one of a steely, world-class rower who overcame a horrific leg injury to win a bronze medal in the 1992 Barcelona Games. The stigma associated with mental illness is still one of the main reasons many don’t reach out for help. And that’s a problem, because one in five Canadians will experience mental illness at some point.

Duboc says he has a possible solution. His company, Beacon, is a digital platform offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy — a well-established approach to treating depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. By providing affordable CBT online, Duboc says his company opens the door for those who would hesitate to set foot in a clinic.

Technology Provides an Answer to the Accessibility Challenge.

Our public health system is designed to deal with mental health when it becomes a crisis, but many sufferers don’t ever fall into that category because their illness is in a mild or moderate form. Others have trouble accessing treatment because they lack the funds, or live in remote areas. And then there’s the problem of long wait lists for a relatively small number of healthcare professionals in most Canadian communities. For some of these people, an app to track wellbeing or to communicate with a healthcare professional is an appealing option.

Data Has a Big Role to Play.

Seider was diagnosed with bipolar disorder eight years ago. Though he received effective treatment in the form of drugs and therapy, he says he got even better when he began to focus on how his behaviour affected his wellbeing. He taught himself to code and built a tool to track his moods — an effort that eventually led to Stigma, Seider’s mood-tracking software.

While the thought of using AI to tackle the problem of mental wellness might scare some people, Seider and our other panelists were more sanguine. AI is about recognizing patterns, and that means it holds the potential for many to recognize harmful mood or behaviour patterns as a first step in addressing them.

Ensuring Privacy Is Key.

Harnessing mobile technology to treat mental health poses a range of privacy concerns. With some 48,000 wellness apps out there, how can one be sure every one of the parties behind them has our privacy interests at heart? Regulation in this emerging space is scant, and more public conversations are needed about the protection of individual data, the rights of patients and the potential risks of harmful advice.

There’s a Business Case.

Mental illness is the number one cause of disability claims in Canada. For employers, mental illness represents a cost — in terms of lost productivity and increased benefit payments. The possibility that technology can provide a more economical solution to assessing and maybe even treating mental health is catching companies’ interest. Duboc says his virtual psychotherapy platform is being used by some large Canadian insurers and universities. As Laumann put it, a mental health problem shouldn’t be “a sentence to a non-productive life.”

John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada's leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization's research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don't live here but exert their influence from afar.

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