GIS, the Newest Weapon in the Battle for Mental Health

December 14, 2016

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Over the last decade, awareness of mental health issues has been slowly growing. The stigma associated with openly discussing mental health symptoms is beginning to erode, and the millions of individuals diagnosed with these conditions are finally getting their day in the sun. As awareness has grown, technologies focused on social work and mental health have also multiplied. Avenues have opened for GIS experts to help understand, and to combat, some of the causes of certain mental health conditions.

Bolstering Mental Health Services

Across the globe, GIS specialists are working to identify mental health hotspots. These are areas where, based on indicators such as socioeconomic status and environment, experts believe there will be a specific need for intervention. In Australia, for example, GIS health specialists are working to document locations where mental health issues are occuring. Furthermore, they are trying to determine specifically which type of help is needed, be it more preventative services, treatment centers, community awareness campaigns, or something else. In time, the program will also aim to identify where the government should focus more or less of its mental health spending.

Identifying Environmental Causes

Because mental health has remained in the shadows for so long, many of the GIS techniques related to its study are still in their infancy. Now, a growing number of studies seek to understand gene-environment interactions – more commonly known as nature vs. nurture — and their effects on mental health, using GIS for location tracking and data analysis.

Preliminary research has largely focused on building a methodological structure for testing gene-environment interactions and on finding ways to gather control groups for experimentation. However, examples do already exist of links between schizophrenia and the environment. One study in China found geographical trends in schizophrenic personality traits in young males in Sichuan province.

Extending the Connection between Mental and Physical Health

Since mental health and physical health are so tightly intertwined, there also has been an increasing effort to understand the causal relationships between them. This can be seen both in the realm of actual patient treatment and within the GIS world. Most experts agree that understanding and providing care for mental health cannot be accomplished in full without taking into account physical health.

GIS professionals have contributed to this effort through their work on understanding the geography of drug use. See, for example, the geographic research into the opioid epidemic in Kentucky. Researchers used story maps to help visualize key counties as well as the locations of treatment services and mental health centers. Studies such as these help to build connections between treatment centers, hospitals, mental health professionals, community outreach, and patients in need, all of which are key to successfully defeating this crisis.

Although the use of GIS in the field of mental health has increased rapidly in recent years, there are still numerous strides to be made to improve treatment and access for the millions of people with mental health conditions worldwide. Through the identification of mental health hotspots, geospatial research into mental health-environmental trends, and connections in physical and mental health, GIS is making a positive difference. 


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