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This is the first of a three-part series about key learnings from this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) 2023 technology conference from our colleagues Becky Cole and Adrienne Schafer. 

At SXSW 2023, it was clear that while technology is the main attraction, humans are the heart and soul of it all. From the creators and makers of technology to the end-users, people firmly surround the digital world. Discussions on mental health were woven into a variety of sessions at the conference, ranging from foraging influencers to doctors to female empowerment and even psilocybin mushrooms. As one speaker emphasized, we need to normalize the idea that our brain is an organ, just like our heart or liver, and it requires care and attention to stay healthy. 

Get Outside to Improve Mental Health 

Alexis Nichole, is also known as @TheBlackForager on Instagram and TikTok. She posits that one reason (she sang this part) “people are so stressed out today” is because they don’t go outside and touch plants enough. Her suggestion, “put one fingey on a plant.” She also suggested that “Foraging is meditative and good for your mental health.” If you want to give it a try, her top forage suggestion in the city is serviceberries. She says they taste like the best blueberry you’ve ever had combined with the best apple you’ve ever had sprinkled with a little almond. We couldn’t test this in Texas, since foraging is illegal there. 

Mental Health Concerns in Medical Professionals 

In the session, “It’s 2032 and the Doctors are Gone,” one large area of concern was doctors’ mental health. As they come out of the pandemic, doctors continue to have high mental health needs without proportionately accessing the help they need. It’s “death by 1,000 clicks” as they are asked to focus more on their electronic health records and while they can see a need and prescribe a treatment, they often experience demoralizing situations where patients can’t receive the recommended care because of insurance and payment issues. Compounding this, is the idea that healthcare providers are concerned that having a mental health diagnosis on their record could cause them to lose patients or prevent them from practicing medicine. The physician suicide rate, which is twice as high as the general population, underscores the urgent need for mental health support in this profession. When one panelist brought up the idea of a mental health AI as a possible solution, there was some laughter in the room. If you attended other AI sessions at SXSW that idea wasn’t so far-fetched. 

Mental Health Employee Benefits 

In sessions focused on women in the workplace, they discussed mental health as part of the package of employment. Humans can lead fulfilling lives and (despite the trope that nobody wants to work anymore) people get fulfillment out of feeling purpose in their work. However, that purpose ideally comes with balance. In the session: Priyanka Chopra Jonas in Conversation with Jennifer Salke they talked about how work and brain-life balance means you get off the word treadmill and spend time thinking instead of in meetings. Multiple sessions talked about protecting your schedule and perhaps forgiving yourself if you aren’t able to keep up. 

Potential Mental Health Benefits of Psilocybin  

There was an entire track focused on psilocybin. Yes, mushrooms. While it’s not yet legal in most states, historical studies suggest psilocybin may hold promise as a treatment for mental health issues such as PTSD and anxiety, as well as fear of death in terminally ill patients. However, there is ongoing debate about the best way to regulate and administer the drug, with some advocating for FDA-approved channels and others supporting its use outside of the healthcare system. There is also a recognition of the historical and cultural significance of psilocybin, particularly among indigenous groups who have long used the substance for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Despite these challenges, many experts believe that psilocybin has the potential to be a game-changer for mental health, especially in the post-pandemic world. As perceptions of the drug continue to evolve, it’s likely that we will see more research and debate around its use. 

While we might take a sick day when we’re feverish, or immediately go to the doctor when a bone is broken, if it’s our brains – an organ in our body – that are suffering, we don’t yet have strong societal norms in place to address it. As we saw at SXSW and beyond, mental health is a critical issue that demands our attention. While we have made progress in recent years, there is still much work to be done in terms of improving access to care and reducing the stigma associated with mental health struggles. This will require new treatments, technologies, and a greater awareness of the importance of mental health. If we can continue to shift our views and priorities in this direction, we may be able to create a future where mental health is treated with the same urgency and care as any other medical issue. 

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