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Aspen Institute Panelists Discuss Technology’s Role in Combatting Mental Illness

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Photo of Rutgers University Assistant Professor Brittney Cooper in 2017 by New America used with permission

August 13, 2020 —  As a result of 2020’s myriad challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread economic instability and a societal reckoning with inequality, mental health issues are on the rise across various populations.

This moment of heightened loneliness and mental health crises underscores the innate need humans have to connect with one another.

To explore the present and future of social relations, the Aspen Institute held a webinar on Thursday entitled “Virtually Alone: The Future of Human Connectivity,” in which panelists came to the conclusion that technology both helps and hinders the ability to connect and maintain meaningful relationships.

Many users who logged onto Instagram this week were met with a promotional banner leading to mental health resources.

The feature is one of many that Instagram has implemented after a 2017 survey by Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health ranked it as the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing.

However, efforts like these may not be enough to counter the social health crisis being brought about by the pandemic, panelists said, and if Instagram’s top priority is truly user wellbeing, it certainly has its work cut out for it.

“The loneliest demographics are millennials,” said Dan Buettner, journalist, producer, and National Geographic Fellow, adding that loneliness “peaked after 2011, when handheld devices became ubiquitous.”

“It’s a correlation,” he noted.

Research conducted by Robin Hewings, director of campaigns, policy and research at the Campaign to End Loneliness, found that having access to technology eased loneliness during COVID-19, as individuals were able to mitigate feelings of loneliness by utilizing applications such as video calls.

“Digital tools allow you to find your people wherever you are, but even people who are connected can feel as though they are unheard,” said Brittney Cooper, assistant professor at Rutgers University.

Technology can both mitigate and amplify existing conditions, depending on use and application, she explained.

“In this sense, technology has combatted one part of the loneliness problem and enhanced another,” Cooper said. “Social media can be a very tough mirror.”

“Sometimes, the basis of online social connections can be unhealthy, especially when this is powered by unrighteous rage,” she continued. “We need to take a critical eye to how and why we form connections online.”

“Looking for an answer to loneliness in a gadget is misguided,” Buettner argued, although he later added that he was perhaps being too harsh on technology.

Creating safer spaces for interaction should be a priority, Hewings concluded.

Health

Providers Call for More FCC Telehealth Funding as Demand Grows

‘I think obtaining funding from the Universal Service Fund would go a long way.’

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, July 26, 2022 – Health care providers in parts of America say they are struggling to deliver telehealth due to a lack of broadband connectivity in underserved communities, and recommended there be more funding from the Federal Communications Commission.

While the FCC has a $200-million COVID-19 Telehealth program, which emerged from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, some providers say more money is needed as demand for telehealth services increases.

“The need for broadband connectivity in underserved communities exceeds current availability,” said Jennifer Stoll from the Oregon Community Health Information Network.

The OCHIN was one of the largest recipients of the FCC’s Rural Health Care Pilot program in 2009. Stoll advocated for the need for more funding with the non-profit SHLB Coalition during the event last week. Panelists didn’t specify how much more funding is needed.

Stoll noted that moving forward, states need sustainable funding in this sector. “I am hoping Congress will be mindful of telehealth,” said Stoll.

“The need for telehealth and other virtual modalities will continue to grow in rural and underserved communities,” she added.

Brian Scarpelli, senior global policy counsel at ACT, the App Association, echoed the call for FCC funding from the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes basic telecommunications services to rural areas and low-income Americans. “I think obtaining funding from the Universal Service Fund would go a long way.”

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Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare Has Benefits, But Also Challenges That Must Be Rectified: Experts

The technology needs to be examined to ensure it doesn’t create inequities in healthcare, panel hears.

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Screenshot of the Atlantic event in late June

WASHINGTON, July 11, 2022 – While the use of artificial intelligence in healthcare has been lauded by some, experts said at an Atlantic event late last month they are concerned that inaccurate data can also hamper progress in the field.

Artificial intelligence has been used widely across the medical field to analyze relationships between medical providers and patients to improve equality of care, including providing patient risk identification, diagnostics, drug discovery and development, transcribing medical documents, and remotely treating patients.

Carol Horowitz, founder of the Mt. Sinai Institute of Health and Equity Research, argued that while AI plays a substantial role in diagnosing health problems at earlier stages, diagnosing patients more quickly, providing second opinions in diagnoses, enhancing scheduling abilities, stimulating hospital workflow, and finding drug availability for a patient as in dermatology, therapeutics, or population health, it’s not a golden ticket.

She reasoned that it “can reflect and really exaggerate inequities in our system,” negatively affecting healthcare equity among patients.

She stated that AI tools have led to inaccurate measurements in data that have proved harmful to individuals’ health. Horowitz shared the example of faulty AI technology during March 2020 meant to allow individuals to self-monitor their own oxygen levels as a precautionary method to the COVID-19 pandemic but led to inaccurate pulse readings for those with darker skin, and inaccurate data gathering, resulting in delayed treatment for many in need.

Michael Crawford, associate dean for strategy of outreach and innovation at Howard University, added that if these certain mismeasurements and flaws in the technology are not addressed, “AI could increase disparities in health care.”

Alondra Nelson, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said when it comes to assessing AI technology innovation for the future, there are both cost and benefits, but we must find “where can we move forward in ways that don’t harm human society but that maximize human benefits.”

As we grapple with how to implement this technology, “we must do science and technology policy that always has equity at the center” for future innovation, said Nelson.

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States Lagging on Bills to Implement 988 Suicide Hotline Mandate as Deadline Approaches

As of June 7, 20 states have passed legislation to implement the 988 suicide hotline mandate, according to FCC data.

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Screenshot from the FCBA event on June 8

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2022 – Only 20 out of the 35 states that have introduced legislation for a new suicide hotline have made the legislation law as of June 7, according to information from the Federal Communications Commission, as the July 16 implementation deadline nears.

States are required to implement the infrastructure and the funding for a 988 number that will go to the National Suicide Hotline, but only four states have passed bills to finance it, Emily Caditz, attorney advisor of the Wireline Competition Bureau under the FCC, said at a Federal Communication Bar Association event last week. Those states – Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington – fund the implementation from fees on cellphone lines.

James Wright, chief of crisis center operations at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, suggested that “key partnerships between state and local governments” will be necessary to help states meet this deadline.

Laura Evans, director of national and state policy at Vibrant Emotional Health, said this funding will “make sure we have robust capacity for the anticipated 9-12 million contacts we expect to come in that first year.”

The commission ordered the adoption of the nationwide line nearly two years ago, on July 16, 2020.

According to the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, “988 is designated as the universal telephone number within the United States for the purpose of the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system operated through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.”

“America’s suicide rate is at its highest since World War II,” said former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at an FCC event in December of 2019. “A simple three-digit code for a suicide hotline can reduce the mental stigma surrounding mental health and ultimately save lives.

Caditz said the implementation of text messaging “is especially popular with groups that are at heightened risk of suicide or mental health crises, including teenagers and young adults and individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, or speech disabled.”

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