Blog: Science fashion – how scent technology can help mental health
Published: 18 Feb 2020
Mental health issues affect 1 in 4 people in the UK each year and new treatments are urgently needed. Common conditions include anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The suicide rate for people with bipolar is 20 times that of the general population.
Many people with mental health issues face intense prejudice and even discrimination from employers, friends and families. Public stigma may also prevent them from seeking medical help. Drug treatments are the common recourse, but may be ineffective, cause debilitating side effects or simply happen too late.
For the last 20 years, I’ve been researching another option: ways to use fragrances as a vehicle to enhance mental wellbeing, using smart textiles and wearable technology. This work has been built on my PhD from the Royal College of Art, The Wellness Collection – A Science Fashion Story, and was part of my own recovery from a bipolar diagnosis in 1993.
"Having lost friends, colleagues and tutors to suicide, it is my ambition that profound innovations like eScent will break down barriers and help society flourish."
During this time I have invented ‘eScent’, a patented voice-sensitive wearable scent technology that delivers unique sensory ‘moments’ through an atomised mist. This is triggered by different mood states, bio signals, contextual data or music. It forms a localised 'scent bubble' around your face, providing an area of constant, detectable scent for the user.
In 2014, I travelled to America on my Churchill Fellowship to explore stress management tools, building on my academic work at Central Saint Martins on ‘sensory fashion’. I used the Fellowship to research the potential of a wearable bio-feedback liquid dispenser that emits evidence-based aromas to alleviate stress and improve sleep hygiene. The aim was to find out if this can help to reduce the risk of an acute bipolar disorder relapse. The aim was to find better ways for people (like me) to manage their own mood swings, using my eScent as an intervention technique. My Fellowship was very much a journey informed by living with neurodivergence and struggling on a day-to-day basis with social anxiety and perceived stigma – which are often considered far worse than the actual mental health diagnosis.
My findings were that eScent could be a new early-alert sensory tool to monitor the small cognitive shifts before the bigger shifts appear - and as a fashion item, it could help destigmatise mental illness. I conducted interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists at the US medical institutes I visited, including University California San Diego, University California San Francisco, John Hopkins University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who expressed positive feedback on the concept. They agreed that eScent could be used to help individuals with bipolar to recognise their triggers earlier, which can help to prevent an episode from escalating.
In the UK, the fashion industry can seem very glamorous to the outside world but from the inside, it is incredibly lonely, fast-paced and highly competitive. Many designers experience severe mental health problems, and 87% of fashion employees recently surveyed by the website Glossy said they were overworked. Leading designer Virgil Abloh and models Adwoa Aboah and Cara Delevingne are a handful of high-profile fashion figures talking about the demands their jobs take on their own mental wellbeing. In 2010, the suicide of designer Alexander McQueen highlighted the intense pressures faced by those in the fashion sector.
Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou and I after receiving my Stelios Disabled Entrepreneurs Award in October 2019
Research shows that suicide can be prevented if warning signs are detected in advance. In the USA, fashion brands are doing much more to prevent suicide. After the designer Kate Spade's death in 2018, her company launched a wellness programme for employees and pledged to donate £800,000 to mental health awareness and suicide prevention causes.
I am convinced that that the UK should be doing much more to open the conversation about suicide prevention, neurodiversity and investing in innovative sensory technologies like eScent. Just as Greta Thunberg proudly talks about her Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis, in her push for more radical climate change, I’m on mission to embrace my bipolar diagnosis and break down mental health stigma. I’m using the power of fashion and fragrance to help me tell my story, and I am currently working on a ‘stigma and style’ mental health awareness campaign inspired by the science of flowers. Stigma and style are the female parts of the flower essential for pollination - without them, there would be no evidenced-based aromas for eScent.
Since completing my Fellowship, I have been further developing my eScent technology as a catalyst for social change. I am building a wearable closed-loop platform technology with AI tools that empowers our most valuable sensory asset: our nose. As humans in the modern world, we have grown to underuse our sense of smell, our most evocative, primitive and direct sense. It has been replaced by the more dominant audio and visual senses. By 're-inventing' our sensory faculties through advances in AI and technology that can understand and detect underlying health issues, we can create new ways to regain our appreciation of the sense of smell.
I am also bioengineering a new movement in voice-sensitive scent technology, which I hope will revolutionise how we leverage the sense of smell. Once complete, eScent will be fully personalised and bio-synchronised to the user’s physical and emotional state. The system will emit scent when smart sensors detect increases in stress and other physical parameters, such as body odour and voice changes due to different mood states.
I have joined the global Transformative Technology community, TransTech Labs, where innovators like me are applying emerging technologies to help humanity move to higher states of thriving. Most recently, I have been working with Leonard Cheshire on a fashion-focused podcast to coincide with London Fashion Week on 14-18 February. You can listen to it here. The podcast is about my journey in developing eScent as a tool to help regulate my own emotional wellbeing and the future of using scent as a tool to manage mental health conditions.
My work in this area was recognised last year when I was given a Stelios Disabled Entrepreneurs Award, resulting in a cash prize and providing me with a new platform to potential investors.
Having lost friends, colleagues and tutors to suicide, it is my ambition that profound innovations like eScent will break down barriers and help society flourish.