There’s an app for that: the positive side of technology and mental health

Nathan Baraowski

Healthcare

You’ve probably seen the headlines: article after article linking screen time and computer usage to an increase in mental health issues. How about the report linking smartphone addiction to anxiety? Or the government’s recent recommendations stating that social media companies have a duty of care to protect young peoples’ health? There’s been a lot in the news about the negative side of technology and mental health, but very little about the positives. As we know, there are two sides to every coin, and although concerns are being raised, when it comes to peoples’ wellbeing some digital inventions are proving very useful.

 

The first thing to note is the ease in which people can turn to the internet for mental health resources. A survey of more than 2,000 UK employees carried out by Accenture found that 72 per cent had used or would use online counselling services or helplines. If you’re struggling, but don’t feel ready to seek face-to-face help, online self-help guides can be used in private at your own pace. Support services like Kooth, the UK’s mental health and wellbeing platform for children and young people, allow instant access to trained counsellors. In fact, this initiative, which is anonymous and free to use, has seen an incredible take-up with more than 1,500 log-ins every day.

And when you begin to look at apps, there are a plethora of options, such as apps to help users learn new thinking or coping skills. Although it’s difficult to ascertain how well these work for different people, when used alongside traditional doctors’ appointments they can be a good aid if you’re looking to map your emotions, read health information or learn how to manage signs and symptoms.  

Some of the best apps are those which have been approved by leading health organisation ORCHA, set up to scour the marketplace for technological developments which can be safely used within clinical settings. Mental health charity Mind also lists a wide range of apps, and runs its own online community, Elefriends, which is moderated from 10am to midnight. At a time when social media companies are coming under pressure to moderate harmful content, chat rooms like this go some way to providing an alternative.

You may not be surprised to hear that there’s also money to be made in mindfulness apps – tech star Michael Acton Smith has just attracted £68 million from investors to continue developing his app Calm, which has been downloaded around 40 million times. If the concept of using smartphones to improve mental health – when there are concerns about the damage they may cause – seems strange, you’ll be pleased to know that the scope of technology for good doesn’t stop there.

With the rise of wearable gadgets, it’s only natural that this can be adapted with mental health in mind. Now, scientists are working on inventions to identify suicidal inclinations, panic attacks and depressive episodes before they come to a head. Technology company Mindstrong is just one example of this. The idea is that you can examine smartphone usage, such as swipes and taps, to measure cognitive control, processing speed and emotion and identifying changes in a person’s mental health. By tapping into our habits, and looking for warning signs indicating difficulties, scientists and psychologists are approaching the subject of mental health in a new way. In 2017, Google even recognised this by giving people searching for the term ‘clinical depression’ on their mobiles the option to take a self-assessment questionnaire.

Finally, psychologists are taking important steps towards treating traumas and paranoias with the help of virtual reality. In North America, this type of technology is being used to help military personnel come to terms with PTSD. Trials at the University of Central Florida have shown that using VR technology to expose combat veterans to scenes which trigger memories can help to overcome trauma and is effective for 66 per cent of participants. In the UK, virtual reality therapy is also being tested to treat people with a range of phobias, such as a fear of heights.

Wellbeing and technology is still a big area of debate. With studies showing that screen time can have an affect on depression and anxiety for young people, there is more work to be done. But if you believe it’s all bad news, think again; it’s clear to see that technology has a positive part to play when it comes to managing your mental health.

You and your organisation can make a difference by using technology in the right way. To get in touch with us by emailing hello@ojosolutions.com or phoning 01225 220155.

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