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Good News | New era for hearing aids and millions for mental health

Last week was World Mental Health Day and to mark that, the Good News Round-up is focusing on positive stories around mental healthcare.

We have news about how international research on mental health is advancing; there’s been a significant rise in Spain’s mental healthcare budget; scientists in Singapore are harnessing the power of artificial intelligence for the early detection of mental health disorders; a study that says that the more compliments you give the happier you’ll be, and a new era for hearing aids.

Click the video above to get the full digest and find out more on the following:

1. We are getting better at treating mental disorders

One of the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the huge toll it has taken on people’s mental health.

Rates of already common conditions such as depression and anxiety went up by more than 25 per cent in the first year of the pandemic.

The good news is that many countries have updated their national policies and strategies for mental health, says the WHO in its latest Mental Health Report.

The Spanish government, for example, recently announced a 67 per cent increase in Spain’s mental healthcare budget for 2023.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had previously presented an action plan to tackle the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, for which he allocated an amount of €100 million to cover the period from 2021 to 2024.

Countries such as Finland and Iceland have been teaching social-emotional skills in schools, and online programmes to support youth mental health in Australia, Norway, and the Netherlands. Canada has also made positive mental health promotion a priority with a dedicated Surveillance Framework.

In 2020 Australia doubled entitlement for sessions of psychological therapies. In 2021 Chile announced that the budget for mental health would increase by 310 per cent. Before COVID-19, New Zealand had developed the world’s first ‘well-being budget’.

In general international research on mental health is advancing rapidly, which is good news for all of us.

2. Scientists in Singapore are harnessing the power of artificial intelligence for the early detection of mental health disorders

Mental health conditions can be hard to spot. Unlike, for example, kidney disease, which is relatively easy to diagnose, conditions such as anxiety or depression have no specific biomarkers that can be picked up with a test.

Patients with the same mental disorder can present many different symptoms, which makes it very difficult for physicians to diagnose accurately.

Scientists from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, however, are developing an AI diagnostic toolkit that could help solve the problem.

They say AI’s ability to process large datasets efficiently could help us detect the biomarkers of various mental health conditions. As well as to determine if a patient’s mental impairment will become more severe.

“We’ve collected different variables, different signals from variables, something that we call digital biomarkers,” Dr Iva Bojic, a key researcher in the project and computer scientist, explained to Euronews.

Some of the biomarkers the team has been focusing on include heart rate, sleep patterns and energy expenditure, “then we correlated that with symptoms that we saw and after a while the model could learn,” said Dr Bojic.

The machine-learning model is then able to make predictions for new users based on their biomarkers.

For now, the team is focusing on spotting depression, but they hope to extend to other conditions such as schizophrenia.

How the model predicts is not binary, explains Dr Bojic; it gives a percentage from zero to a hundred. “Then it’s basically about where we put the threshold. So are you going to say that depression starts above 50 or are we going to say that it starts around 80 per cent?”

“What we are doing is more of a screening tool for people… and then, hopefully, they can go into the process of care, where their condition can be managed.”

Dr Bojic says that one of the advantages of their study is that they work with general populations, instead of focusing on people who are already clinically diagnosed, which makes it “an excellent tool for screening.”

“I am really happy that we are able to do this kind of digital-health intersection. It’s not just chasing some numbers.”

“I really think that… we can help people with the knowledge and algorithms that we’ve developed.”

3. The more compliments you give, the happier you’ll be

A simple compliment can make someone’s day, yet we constantly underestimate how great they can make a person feel.

We also overestimate how bothered and uncomfortable we might make someone feel, and we worry that our words might land wrong.

But, it turns out, it’s all unfounded. Compliments make us feel good. To hear them and to give them, according to five comprehensive studies done by two scientists from the University of Pennsylvania.

“Only 50 per cent of people in one experiment who wrote down a compliment for a friend actually sent the compliment along when given the chance, even though they’d already done the hardest part — coming up with something nice and thoughtful to say.”

“Despite the widely shared desire to give more compliments, when faced with the decision people still often forgo low-cost opportunities to make others feel appreciated and valued,” said Professor Erica Boothby, co-author of the study, in an article written for Harvard Business Review.

When asked, nearly 90 per cent of people believed that they should compliment each other more often, she said. And yet we choose not to give them in practice.

Professor Boothby and another scientist, Vanessa K. Bohns, also discovered that the element of surprise can take an already powerful compliment to the next level. When givers caught their recipients off guard, the people receiving the compliments were even more grateful.

4. A new era for hearing aids has officially arrived

Hearing loss can be quietly devastating for tens of millions of people.

There is a strong link between deafness and loneliness, social isolation and depression. There’s even an increased risk of falls, because hearing loss can trigger balance issues.

People losing their hearing are also more likely to have dementia.

But not many people that need one actually use a hearing aid. In the United States, for example, less than a third of adults over 70 that need a hearing aid have ever used one.

In Europe 65 per cent of those with hearing loss do not use hearing aids.

Why? Frustration about time scales and cost appear to be the main reasons discouraging millions from buying the devices.

Until recently, the sale of hearing aids was restricted to licensed professionals, which kept the prices high, very high – as much as US$4,000 to US$5,000 in the States.

The good news is that this all changed last week when the US Food and Drug Administration made high-quality hearing aids – suitable for most people with mild to moderate deafness – an over-the-counter product.

Barbara Kelly, Executive Director of Hearing Loss Association of America, told Euronews the Association had been waiting over four years for hearing aids to finally be available over the counter.

In 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report on affordable and accessible hearing healthcare, issuing a recommendation for the FDA to open up a new category of over-the-counter hearing aids.

In 2017, the relevant act was signed into law.

“And it took all that time, about four years, for the FDA to propose the rules, and then time for everybody to comment on them and then to put out the final rules,” says Kelly.

Last Monday these hearing aids finally became available.

“We’re really positive about it. We feel it’s a new avenue for care for people. We hope that having these hearing aids in the mainstream will make them more accessible, more affordable and more acceptable for some people.”

The fact that hearing aids have now become an over-the-counter product doesn’t mean people won’t be able to use the services of a specialist.

“I don’t see it as an either/or. You can certainly still get good service from a hearing healthcare provider and get an OTC.”

In the United States, people typically have to pay out of pocket to get hearing aids. And the prices “run the gamut”, in Kelly’s words.

“There are hearing aids that have all the bells and whistles. They monitor your blood pressure. They tell people when you fall. Those can get up close to US$10,000. But I would say a midpoint would probably be about $4,000 for two hearing aids.”

The Hearing Loss Association of America hopes over-the-counter hearing aids will make the devices more affordable once the market plays out. It also expects to see some innovation.

“We’ll see new people getting into the market, not just traditional hearing aid companies.”

“It’s so important to pay attention to hearing health. At the beginning, when you have good hearing, and at every stage along the way.”

If you enjoyed this episode of the Good News round-up, share it with your friends.

Until next time, and remember, some news can be good news.

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