Keep an eye out for these emerging trends and exciting new research developments in mental health in the new year.

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Mental health became an important part of the public conversation in 2021, as Olympic athletes, celebrities, and other public figures came forward about their well-being and helped reduce the stigma.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we can expect mental health to continue to be a top priority in 2022, particularly as the United States reckons with a growing mental health crisis.

In fact, a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association showed that one-quarter of Americans made a new year’s resolution to improve their mental health in 2022.

Although 2021 wasn’t without its challenges, the past year brought growth, understanding, and hopefully, renewed optimism.

New developments in science, such as the COVID-19 vaccines, are a testament to humanity’s commitment to healing.

Other exciting research studies have shown us how we can improve mental health services, address racial and socioeconomic disparities, and ultimately, enhance our overall well-being from the inside out.

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot happening in the mental health space — too much for one article alone. To determine our top mental health trends of 2022, we consulted experts in the field and Psych Central’s Medical Affairs Team.

Note that some of these trends aren’t yet available, but we expect a continued increase in research and accessibility in the months to come.

Nearly 61% of adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study.

Around 1 in 6 adults endure four or more traumatic events during childhood, with women and people from minoritized communities facing a greater risk.

Clinicians, health care practitioners, educators, and mental health professionals are widely embracing a trauma-informed approach to care to address trauma among the broader population.

Trauma-informed care will only continue to be emphasized in 2022, according to Nathaniel Ivers, PhD, department chair and associate professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

For trauma-informed care to be effective, Ivers emphasizes the need for a holistic approach that includes treatments and strategies that play to an individual’s strengths versus their weaknesses. In some cases, trauma-informed care could run the risk of hyper-focusing on an individual’s trauma exclusively, rather than homing in on an individual’s strengths to effectively understand and treat them.

Soon, you could have the option to take a blood test to easily detect a mental health condition like depression.

In April 2021, researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine developed a novel blood test for mental illness, suggesting that biological markers for mood disorders can be found within RNA biomarkers.

The breakthrough study indicated that a blood test can determine the severity of depression and the risk for developing severe depression and bipolar disorder in the future. The blood test may also help tailor an individual’s medication choices.

“This is an exciting prospect for identifying biological markers of depression among researchers, but very preliminary in its understanding and potential for use,” says Matthew Boland, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Reno, Nevada, and a member of Psych Central’s Medical Affairs Team.

Although blood tests for mental illnesses are still in their early development stages, this scientific advancement could change, even improve, how mental health conditions are diagnosed, which is often by trial and error.

“This method will remain an adjunctive to traditional diagnostic tools, as mental illnesses are complex and have biological, psychological, and sociocultural etiologies,” Ivers adds.

Psychedelics have been used for religious, medical, and ceremonial purposes around the world for centuries, predominantly among Indigenous cultures.

And recent research suggests that psychoactive substances like psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, and ketamine can help treat mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and more.

Although psychedelics are still classified as controlled substances and illegal in many countries, including the United States, laws, policies, and stigma are starting to ease up.

For instance, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently authorized an increase in the production of psychedelics to meet growing research demands.

From Yale to Johns Hopkins to New York University, to the newly minted Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy at the University of Texas, research scientists are becoming increasingly interested in the therapeutic value of psychedelics and other psychoactive substances.

In addition, emerging research shows the potential mental health benefits of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (PAP), a form of therapy combined with ingesting a psychoactive substance.

“Adjunctive therapy is needed to keep old habits [from] solidifying following dosing,” Boland says. “More established methods will be slower to adopt, partially due to legality and awaiting increased research findings for efficacy for many specific conditions.”

While psychedelic therapy is still at least a few years away from being offered at your therapist’s office, we’ll likely continue to see more scientific discoveries on the possible benefits.

If you have a smartphone, you’re probably well aware that limiting your screen time can be a challenge. Not to mention, spending too much time online can negatively affect your well-being.

And if you’ve watched Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma,” you’re familiar that Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest specifically designed these apps to hold your attention for as long as possible.

You might also recall when a former Facebook employee testified before Congress in October 2021 on the negative effects of Instagram on teens’ mental health, which was dovetailed by a global Facebook outage.

The events sparked an overdue dialogue about the potentially harmful effects of social media platforms and the need for taking an occasional break.

We can expect to hear more conversations about “digital wellness” and establishing healthy boundaries with social media, particularly as research continues to shed light on the negative effects on adolescents and adults alike.

“Larger overall scrutiny of the effects of social media on mental health will likely continue and increase,” Boland says. “Whether or not that translates to definitive action by lawmakers may be a different story.”

What “social media boundaries” might look like will vary based on the individual, and whether they’re effective is still up for debate. While more research is needed, Boland suggests that setting the following boundaries can be helpful:

  • Limit screen time.
  • Unfollow people.
  • Don’t read comments.

According to Ivers, the mental health effects of “doom scrolling” and virtual privacy could see more traction in 2022 as well.

“I also believe there will be an increase in discussions about the disproportionate influence of social media on people’s ideas, attitudes, and behaviors, particularly for impressionable youth,” Ivers says.

Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies could improve the future of therapy sessions and mental health diagnoses. According to research published in December 2021, AI motion sensors can be used to detect symptoms of anxiety such as:

  • nail biting
  • knuckle cracking
  • hand tapping

Additionally, research from October 2021 suggests that AI can help train therapists by evaluating their skills, including whether or not they’re creating an optimal environment for their clients.

Although the use of AI in mental health training and treatment could increase in the new year and beyond, experts say the technology is unlikely to replace traditional mental health services with human beings.

Therapy administered via telemental health picked up steam in 2020, sustained in 2021, and is here to stay, according to experts.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many mental health professionals now have the training, experience, confidence, and technology to conduct telemental health services effectively and ethically,” Ivers says. “It also has the potential to increase mental health treatment access to rural and older adult communities.”

According to Boland, around 60% of mental health practitioners currently have full caseloads solely on telehealth.

“Clients largely appear to enjoy the convenience — only a few clients have requested in-person,” Boland says. “Some mental health and business analysts project that telemental health could expand even more.”

Virtual mental health services can be especially helpful for those who:

  • are immunocompromised
  • have transportation challenges
  • have physical disabilities

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive method of brain stimulation, has been studied extensively in recent years and is being increasingly used to treat certain mental health conditions.

The safety and efficacy have been so promising that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to approve innovative TMS technologies like NeuroStar and BrainsWay. TMS stimulates areas of the brain that are known to be underactive in individuals with mental health conditions such as:

“If depression levels continue to increase, I suspect that TMS will be utilized more frequently in 2022, especially for individuals whose depression is not improving with traditional methods,” Ivers says.

The FDA recently authorized marketing for a virtual reality (VR) program for chronic pain reduction as an alternative to opioid prescriptions.

VR treatments could be revolutionary, offering a different type of therapy for folks who wish to avoid pain medication to relieve their symptoms.

“People are put into a virtual world where they conduct movements, learn about the nature of pain sensations in their body, and learn a number of behavioral and cognitive skills on how to effectively respond to pain and cope with the stress associated with it,” Boland says.

“[VR] is meant to work along with medication, physical treatments, and behavioral clinician work,” he adds.

As VR technology becomes more accessible, experts say we’ll see a continued expansion for treatments for different mental health and medical conditions.

“As virtual worlds become more prevalent and useful and as the metaverse evolves, I believe that medical and mental health professionals will find ways to help clients through these technologies,” Ivers says.

2021 was an innovative year for scientific research in the mental health space — and we’re excited to see what 2022 has in store.

From trauma-informed care to psychedelic research to artificial intelligence and virtual reality, there are many exciting developments to be on the lookout for, especially as we all become a little more comfortable talking about our mental health.

If you’re curious as to what the future holds, you may wish to check back for more updates. We’ll continue to share the latest research, technologies, therapies, and resources that we believe will revolutionize how we approach our mental wellness.

In the meantime, we wish you a happy, healthy, and safe new year and hope you’re able to take good care of yourself in 2022 and beyond.