We interview Marta Sánchez Bret, Manager of the Mental Health Care Cluster of Catalonia. The only mental health care cluster, in fact, of the world, and its headquarters can be found in Sant Boi de Llobregat, Barcelona.

  • How did the Mental Health Care Cluster originate?

This is a public/private initiative. On its public side, it ascribes to the cluster policy of the Government of Catalonia’s Department of Industry and Competition. This department has a division for clusters, something they have been working on in the past twenty years. The word “cluster” means guild, and it consists of an association of producers and service providers that compete in the same market. The difference between clusters and actual guilds is that clusters include many agents, which intervene and participate during the many stages of the chain value of mental health care. They organise events, training courses, workshops, etc., with the aim to attract participants that will share their knowledge with each other. This is how new ideas appear, how innovation is motivated, and how new projects are born. The associations that work as clusters have been proven to be more efficient, more competitive, and have better macro-economic indicators. There are currently in Catalonia 30 clusters certified by the Department via de Catalonia Clusters programme.

The Mental Health Care Cluster, however, is a little bit different from the others, because it sparked from a local strategy plan of Sant Boi de Llobregat in 2008, when it became noticeable that the town had many job positions related to mental health care. In 2013, the Mental Health Care Cluster of Catalonia was founded. In these past few years we have gathered new members and we have received the European certification that allows us to participate in the Catalonia Cluster, as well as some grants that have helped campaign our activity. The Mental Health Care Cluster organises all kinds of activities for the promotion of mental health: prevention, diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation and reinsertion into the job market and social life.

  • What kind of activities do you organise to promote knowledge of mental health?

The cluster has an annual calendar with different activities: networking, success stories, strategic activities, conferences and summits, workshops and debates. The cluster does not direct these activities, but promotes them so that members of the cluster can lead them or share their knowledge in them. For example, this year we have done three sessions on the “tractor project”, which consists on designing a simple way to transfer mental health care processes (treatment, chronicity, diagnostic…) to other sectors (like new technologies) through several sessions. Some of them have been about wearables, gamification, virtual or augmented reality, etc.

  • Which initiatives or projects with new technologies have been developed by the cluster?

In research, the cluster has boosted the investigation of grey matter in bipolar disorders. It is an analysis based on quantitative indicators, called ‘biomarkers’, that provide evidence on any illness that might appear. In that sense, we have conducted genetic and neuroimaging research, and we have contrasted several groups of the population to determine how neuroimaging can help detect if there are people that are more likely to develop a bipolar disorder in the future.

For the diagnosis, we have worked with the companies that produce brain stimulators, or the reading of electrical impulses that go through the brain, with a helmet called ‘Moebio’ that collects data from all the stimulus and how they affect different kinds of brain. The data collected is open data—to offer access to the information to other professionals—and big data—since the information is so heavy, algorithms help find evidence and connections.

In Parkinson’s, for example, there is evidence that provoking electric stimulus to specific areas of the brain can help prevent a crisis. In other illnesses, such as first-stage psychosis or acute psychosis, some early symptoms or biomarkers could have been detected early by wearables or ecological interventions, which collect data for some days and then upload it to the cloud, analyse it and extract a pattern. The aim is to translate this first-hand knowledge into technological tools.

Some virtual reality initiatives are already being used to treat phobias. This kind of treatment can take place within the doctor’s practice, who will be there by the patient’s side, or at home, when the doctor will be monitoring it from their office, as all the data is collected in the cloud.

  • Does the cluster plan on becoming international?

We do have the strategic advantage: it is the only mental health cluster in the world. But this is at once a strength and a weakness. A strength, because if it is done well and has a solid growth, if it establishes excellency criteria and is able to spread knowledge on mental health care, then we can become the first to export this vision of the cluster internationally. It is also, however, a weakness, because the fact that nothing has been done using this cluster model means that we start from scratch, we cannot base it in any previous model, and this requires for our members to really believe in what we do long-term. What we are working on will take time, we have to build it slowly.

Here we work commission-based, the first meeting of the internationalization committee took place this past April, and there was an interest in divulging the information internationally through digital technologies. On regards to actual care, there was also interest in taking advantage of Barcelona’s brand right now, to offer mental health care resource packs through, for example, Barcelona Health Destination. These packs could work with tools from telemedicine, to monitor patients. We do not contemplate, however, to internationalise our mental health care in other countries, as we could not monitor that from our cluster. This is more of a strategy that each member has to consider for themselves, and that requires an investment from each institution.