Living with a mental illness can affect almost every aspect of a person’s life, including their ability to hold a job, maintain relationships, and carry out day-to-day tasks. In 2017, the World Health Organization calculated 792 million people worldwide suffered from a mental health disorder, ranking mental illness among the most common causes of disability. Why then, do those seeking treatment for their mental health always seem to come second to patients with physiological disorders, battling stigmas and underdeveloped treatment methods every step of the way? In recognition of World Bipolar Day, we’d like to highlight three Ukrainian software developers who are doing their part to stop the stigma against mental illness and improve treatment for patients, starting with those living with bipolar disorder.
Alexander Sharko, Vladimir Tutov, and Alexey Tulin are the creators of Bicovery, a mobile health technology application that monitors the emotional and physical states of people living with bipolar disorder. In 2019, the co-founders were one of six teams selected from more than 50 applicants to exhibit their app at the 2019 Startup Competition in Kyiv, Ukraine. Co-hosted by CRDF Global’s Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP) Ukraine, the conference provided a collaborative stage for global changemakers from a variety of fields, including business, technology, media, and engineering to come together and share their ideas. STEP Ukraine is designed to promote the exchange of innovative technological ideas across different sectors and regions to benefit international scientific collaboration and contribute to the overall global economy. Its establishment has been instrumental in solidifying an effective working relationship between rising businesses, established companies, and up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Ukraine and the U.S.
The creators of Bicovery met while working for Archer Software, a consulting company developing solutions in healthcare, Fintech, and automotive domains, and developed the app to improve the reality of lagging treatment options for mental health patients. “The precise, multi-channel behavioral data collection is critically important for this arena. Unlike physiological disorders, there is a dramatic lack of systematic, continuous data about patients’ behavior, the reaction to treatment, and so on,” says co-founder, Alexander Sharko. After their success in Kyiv, the creators of Bicovery attended CES 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada, where they exhibited their product alongside Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, Facebook, and more than 4,000 other innovators. Among the positive feedback they received at the conference, one attendee referred to the app as “the future [of mental health care] and long overdue to supplement the other medical interventions.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) classifies bipolar disorder as a lifelong – but treatable – illness marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy, and behavior. A person living with bipolar disorder often experiences alternating states of extreme mania (highs) and depression (lows). Depending on the type (Bipolar I, Bipolar II, or Cyclothymic), this mood shift can last for hours, days, weeks, or months. To learn more about the specific types, read here.
Due to the diverse nature of the illness, effective diagnoses and treatment methods must address both manic and depressive symptoms, the variations of which differ dramatically between individuals. Once diagnosed, patients often undergo multiple trials of medications to find the right combination of mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, anti-anxiety medications, sleep medications, and antidepressants. This trial-and-error method, while unfortunately remaining the most common, can be extremely frustrating for patients, as the lack of affordable and effective treatment often increases the severity and level of debilitation of the disease.
The Role of Mobile Health Technologies
Today, most treatment methods for bipolar disorder have evolved to recognize the importance of the “three pillars” for wellness: medication supported by psychotherapy and self-care. At its origins, the treatment of mental health disorders heavily relied upon the subjective experience of mood. Over the past century however, psychiatry and psychology have prioritized more quantifiable techniques, including external observation, precise measurement, and lab techniques. According to the International Journal of Bipolar Disorder (IJBP), this shift in emphasis on external observation and precise measurement over the subjective experience of mood, however, has provided only a limited improvement in our understanding of mood disorders – a mental health class used to describe all types of depression and bipolar disorders. Today, combined with technology’s ability to transfer information directly from the patient to the medical professionals, self-monitoring of mood may have the potential to enrich our knowledge of mental health – thereby improving the effectiveness of treatment and extending the lives of those living with mood disorders.
Mental health apps provide an easy-to-use platform for self-monitoring and technology to collaborate and create a personalized treatment plan for patients. Users can enter in their subjective mood ratings as they arise, which the app then generates into an automated analysis, so that warning signs can be communicated to the patient, caregivers, and treatment team. Allowing individuals to monitor the effectiveness of a new medication or psychological treatment has the potential to dramatically reduce the lengthy trial-and-error period of finding the best treatment. As technology becomes a more crucial component of our daily lives, researchers are welcoming these tools that support and enhance clinical practice. Many teletherapy patients say the convenience, easy access, and privacy provided through these types of remote sessions outweigh the loss of nonverbal cues that are more prevalent during in-person meetings, according to a study on treating bipolar disorder in the digital age (IJBP). For people living with bipolar disorder, this new approach has transformed treatment methods to focus on integrated care, preventative measures, and the biological basis of the disease – data points that were previously excluded from treatment plans.
Bicovery collects data from three main sources: a wearable device, such as a fitness tracker or a smartwatch; a custom-installed keyboard to monitor “typing behavior”; and the smartphone on which the app is installed. These three sources collectively monitor 23 different parameters of physical and social activities to establish a base level of the individual’s physical and mental states. The collected data then undergoes two layers of analytics to process the information. The first layer is an algorithmic model designed to identify signs of anxiety, changes in sleep patterns, cognitive disruptions, and levels of unhealthy excitement (mania). The data is then fed through the machine-based learning model of the second analytic layer to configure and identify behavioral anomalies that are often overlooked by the human eye. As a result of the app’s machine-based learning system, patients can quickly identify changes in their overall health status, allowing them to better understand certain “triggers” and prepare for upcoming episodes. Additional features include telehealth sessions, virtual meetings with other users, resources to find recommended healthcare professionals, and information on various prescription and treatment effectiveness.
Mobile health technologies are opening new doors for patients and caregivers in the realm of mental health care. These new tools provide the ability to warn individuals of a potential episode or relapse, establishing individually tailored treatment as the new norm for people living with mental illness. The creators of Bicovery are continuing this trend as they design new features of the app that will allow for further personalized treatment plans and the potential to diagnose bipolar disorder by identifying early warning signs. In the future, the creators hope to expand the same concept of self-monitoring, integrated care, and mobile health technologies to help people living with other mental illnesses, like anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia.
Want to learn more about Bicovery?
Visit their website for more information on the app and ways to get involved.