Mental Health and Walking the Line Between Helping vs. Hurting

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.

optimism.png headspace.png

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.

huddle

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.

Sources:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/10-mobile-apps-that-deliver-advice-and-therapy/

http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/25/health/logic-suicide-hotline-vma-18002738255/index.html

https://cassandra.co/tech/2017/11/17/call-to-mind

7 comments

  1. Great post–a really important topic to bring up! I think you bring up some great posts about the mental health space and its intersection with technology. I think the advent of social media/the general internet has led to mental health being talked about much more openly, and sharing of personal experiences, etc. I especially liked your point about the dangers of entering such spaces, and the need for responsibility. The consequences of having unlicensed users on platforms like Huddle offering advice is frightening.

  2. I have heard about some of the examples you bring up of technology making mental health treatment more accessible to those who need it. I am obviously happy to see this progress, but I can’t help but think about the other side of technology, specifically social media and the adverse affects it can have on self-esteem, particularly of young people. I feel that there has been a tangible change in the way mental health is spoken about and perceived, and we are moving in the right direction, but there is still much progress to be made. I wonder, like @lwennbie mentioned, how does Huddle monitor the interactions of its users, ensuring healthy conversations and helpful advice are being shared.

  3. This topic is so important! I’m glad to learn more about how technology has improved the stigma around mental health. This topic also reminded me of an article that I read about how Alexa/ AI can be used to help people with depression. (See here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/alexa-can-you-prevent-suicide-1508762311) There are so many ways that data and technology can predict our behavior, including the likelihood of people with depression or another illness. I think that apps that offer live therapy sessions are so great, especially because many millennials are more comfortable communicating via a device as opposed to in-person. Your points about the use of crowdsourcing in such apps are really valid; however, I think offering a platform for people struggling with the same issues could be beneficial. I do think the activities in these apps need to be monitored by a professional in some way, though! Awesome post!!

  4. Great post! My only hesitation with technology entering this space is that it might not provide the full benefit to the consumer. There is something irreplaceable about a counselor being in-person to read your body language during a discussion that might be hard to talk about. Additionally, the ambiance of a room is often very important for patients to feel comfortable opening up about their struggles. Speaking to someone through a phone, even if it is a professional, loses this characteristic of intimacy. While apps for meditation and mental health may be beneficial, I believe that they should supplement, rather than replace current therapeutic options.

  5. Great post! It’s definitely apparent that technology has the ability to both help and hurt people with mental illness. On one hand it makes “FOMO” much worse and allows people to instantly know if they have not been included in something. It also pressures people to post things that they feel make it look like they are having a great time. On the other hand, the response to the Logic song and the Logic song itself did a lot to help with the stigma around mental illness. The other apps you mentioned are also great options and resources for people who are struggling with mental illness. It’ll be interesting to see how the negative and the positive continue to progress as technology does in the future.

  6. Nice post. This is a topic that has actually come up in semesters past, mainly because it can bring people with similar mental illnesses together in ways that reinforce the problems.

  7. Great Post! “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.” – this is really important. Tech gives companies a lot of openings to try to help people, but if they do not know what they are doing, it can have disastrous consequences. You wouldn’t want a non-doctor to be giving out medical advice and the same things go in this case.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: