Though in the past, mental health has been swept under the carpet as a taboo topic, the issue has emerged as a focal point of conversation over the past decade. Universities and public health entities have begun working on destigmatizing mental health issues and normalizing these discussions. Clubs like To Write Love on Her Arms at Boston College, and efforts to teach educators about signs to look out for in students have encouraged more people to seek and offer help. In fact, a popular song by Logic called “1-800-273-8255” (the number of the suicide prevention lifeline) caused the number of calls to spike recently. The public response on Twitter that this song elicited from fans who have struggled with depression illustrates the increasing normalization of discussing personal mental health problems openly.
In response to an increasing “market” for mental health counseling, many services have emerged that are especially accessible to younger generations, harnessing the data collection abilities of smartphones to help users notice patterns in themselves. An app called Optimism allows users to regularly track their mood, triggers, alcohol consumption, and other variables to help them notice patterns and avoid situations that will send them into spells of depression or anxiety. Another app called Mobilyze! uses data collected from users’ phones such as GPS location, number of phone calls, messages, and social media usage to predict feelings of isolation and help users develop healthier lifestyles. Other apps like Headspace and Pause provide users with tools to cope with their feelings through different styles of guided meditation. In fact, the last time I flew with JetBlue, one of their entertainment options was the Headspace guided meditation for people with a fear of flying– a very smart partnership between the two companies. None of these apps are a one-size-fits-all solution for any one person struggling with mental health disorders, but the number of options available to them today is staggering compared to options available years ago.
Another category of apps that includes Talkspace and BetterHelp offer live therapy sessions from licensed professionals. Although this method is untraditional, therapy “on demand” may be a more accessible and comfortable format for many younger patients who are used to digital forms of communication. Virtual sessions also eliminate many of the physical obstacles that might prevent young patients from seeking help, such as access to transportation to a therapist’s office.
These services can be extremely helpful for people struggling with mental health disorders. However, there is another group of apps that I fear could be somewhat detrimental to patients seeking help. This category includes apps such as Huddle, described as “peer-to-peer counseling” and SunriseHealth, an app that forms groups of patients dealing with similar issues to provide group therapy and peer support in between counseling sessions.
Crowdsourcing can be extremely helpful when not much is at risk and you can try different solutions without consequence for using a “trial and error” method, but I would argue that mental health does not fall into this category. I think peer support from people who understand what you are going through can be critical in the healing process. However, apps like Huddle can foster unhealthy or unqualified reinforcement among patients. There is a fine line between offering support and offering advice; people who are themselves struggling with mental health may not be in the right mindset to be giving objective advice.
One way that SunriseHealth addresses this (which Huddle does not) is by ensuring that there is a licensed professional facilitating each support group who can detect and prevent adverse relationships. The platform also uses AI technology to recognize emergency situations or abuse.
Ultimately, technology has the power to help people cope with mental health by providing access to a community and to professional caregivers. However, if not implemented carefully, it can potentially be more harmful than helpful. If technology companies are going to venture into this space, they need to be ready to face the consequences and really understand the impact they can have, both good and bad. Although it is important that these digital spaces are created, it is equally important that they be heavily monitored and moderated. I think this is in a way parallel to what is happening with political ads and spam from Russian companies on Facebook and Google. These technology companies need to be responsible for the conversations they are propping up through their platforms. It is not enough to offer a service and let people use it how they please. It is just as important for these companies to recognize the power they hold and continually revise their platforms to insure they are used only for positive impacts. These apps show both the benefits and drawbacks of such technology, the results of which I hope will inform smarter, safer solutions for to users live happier, healthier lives.