Technology and the future of Mental Health Treatment
It’s 10.30 p.m. and Maya is getting ready to go to sleep. She lies down on her bed and picks up her smartphone. You can be forgiven if you assume that she is going to spend the better part of an hour surfing her social media sites, as most of us are prone to do. However, she has reached out for her smartphone to access her meditation app. For the next 10 to 15 minutes, she will follow the instructions of the app, which will tell her to breathe deeply, to let go of all the thoughts accumulated over the day and to be aware of herself and her bed. In a few minutes, this little meditative exercise will help her fall asleep in a peaceful and tranquil state of mind.
Maya has been using this meditation app for over a month now. Before this app, she never got a proper 7 hours of restful sleep. The App was suggested to her by her office colleague who noticed how tired she was at work.
Today, hundreds of people are using various apps and websites as a form of therapy for their various health needs, both physical and mental. Technology is truly at the forefront of making mental health care accessible to everyone. There are apps and websites to help you quit certain addictions, to help you sleep, to help you reach a counsellor, to help you be part of a support group; the list can go on and on.
The stigma around mental illnesses is slowly eroding away. People are now realizing that they need to take care of their mental health even if they don’t have any mental health problems yet. There are hundreds of apps, probably thousands even, on iTunes and Android app stores that deal with mental health. Search engines are rife with self-help sites to assist you with your mental and physical well-being. While many websites have real people offering support on real-time chats, there are few that make use of intelligent bots.
While technology is taking great strides in the mental health care segment is it truly as effective as getting counselled by a real in-person counsellor? The technology behind these apps and websites are at a nascent stage and the research is still unclear. However, apps and websites that have been developed with the help of leading research institutes and major universities are a better bet than those that have no strong credentials.
Let’s now discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having mental health care services accessible online and on your smartphone.
Advantages of Mental Health Apps and Websites
Mental health Apps and websites are a boon not just for users but also for clinicians too. Let’s see how these apps have an advantage over the traditional forms of counselling.
Convenience, flexibility and round-the-clock service: A person can seek assistance anytime and anywhere, whether it’s before a big meeting or while travelling back home. There is no need to travel to the counsellor’s office and no need for fixed appointments. Even if there is an in-person chat service available, you may be able to set reminders on when and what time you would like to have a session. Moreover, being an online service, assistance is always available 24×7, helping those who work for long hours or who work in shifts.
Privacy and safe access to mental health care: Mental health care apps and websites are especially useful for people who wish to access care and intervention but wish to remain anonymous. It has been instrumental in getting people to try mental health assistance for the first time. Under anonymity, users are open about their problems and hence able to access better resolutions. These apps and websites may also provide online group support, helping users feel less lonely and isolated.
Less expensive and more accessible: Most of these mental health apps are free or come at a fee which is much lesser than the traditional sessions. This is particularly useful for students and young working professionals who don’t have a lot of disposable income. Also, these apps and websites are especially useful in offering mental health care in remote areas or rural villages of the country where there are no mental health practitioners. India is a large country and there are many villages and small towns that have no access to basic healthcare, less alone mental health care. In these places, these apps and websites can help people greatly, especially when there are a lot of superstitions around mental health problems.
Data collection and statistics: Mental health researchers and scientists can benefit greatly from these apps. With the knowledge of the users, these apps and websites can collate data and statistics and come up with facts and figures on different mental health ailments prevalent in society. It will also be easier to conduct large scale studies on mental health.
Disadvantages of Mental Health Apps and Websites
This is a relatively new area and there are some pertinent questions that need to be asked. Are these apps and websites as effective as traditional methods? Is there enough research to back the methods of these new technological self-help apps and websites? Let’s look at some of the disadvantages of mental health apps and websites.
Devoid of human touch: Mental health apps and websites can come across as too clinical and may lack empathy and human emotion. Mental health apps and websites cannot observe the body language of the user and have to go completely why what the user feeds on the app. Non-verbal communication is a big factor when it comes to making detailed observations on a person’s mental wellbeing. Hence, diagnosis and solutions provided by the apps and websites may not be completely effective or correct.
Concerns over security: Anything online can be hacked. If the app or the website is not secure then the user may not be comfortable engaging with them. Users should not share their personal data, contact details and especially their bank details over these apps and websites.
One solution to different problems: Not all apps and websites have a real person counsellor helping users with their problems. Many have bots that are programmed to give a certain answer to a specific problem. More often than not these problems overlap and the resolution provided may not be appropriate. This one size fits all approach may not help everyone, especially those who really need to see an in-person counsellor.
Overpromise and delay of treatment: Some of these apps and websites may overpromise unrealistic solutions to a user’s mental health problems. Many users who really do need in-person, traditional mental health care may turn away from these better treatment methods, simply because apps and websites are convenient, cheap and more often than not private.
How to Approach these Apps and Websites?
There are still no rules and regulations to evaluate how these apps and websites should operate. The best thing you can do is to use your common sense and discretion. Go for apps and websites that do not need your personal details, especially bank details. You can ask for recommendations from people you trust, like your doctors or in-house school/office counsellors.
Look for apps and websites that are backed by leading research centres or universities. Apps that have reputed counsellors, psychiatrists and academicians as consultants on their team is also a good sign of reliability.
Discontinue apps and websites that make you feel worse than before and seek traditional methods of counselling. You may then ask the counsellor for their suggestions on appropriate apps or websites for mental health care.
In the end, technology can and is doing a lot for mental health care. It has removed the stigma attached to mental health care and has made it accessible and affordable. However, it is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before it can be as efficient as traditional methods.