At what point in the day do we feel most isolated and vulnerable? Many people would agree that it’s actually during the night. There’s something about lying awake at night that seems to amplify our deepest concerns. Imagination takes our minds to places that, in the cold light of day, often seem ridiculous. Yet, these thoughts don’t seem so absurd at night. We’re at our lowest point during the night precisely because we’re meant to be enjoying restorative sleep, not distressing thoughts. But it’s not just that; the people we would want to turn to for help are asleep or unavailable at night, and many support agencies have shut up shop and gone home. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something to help ourselves at 2 o’clock in the morning?
Mobile mental health innovations
Nowadays we can quickly go online and find a wealth of information about mental health issues. But there are downsides. First, the sheer volume of material is hard to process. Second, the available information is sometimes confusing and contradictory. Third, how is a person meant to know what advice is right for them? When times are difficult, it’s not easy to sit and painstakingly read through pages of material in the hope that something might be useful and relevant.
Technology designed for mental health has been making headlines. In October 2017, the British Royal Foundation announced a sizeable financial investment to back digital solutions for mental health: the establishment of a center for digital mental health innovations. The Royal Foundation is the primary charitable vehicle for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.
The new center will bring together expertise from mental health and technology fields to develop innovative solutions for people who feel isolated and in need of help. The non-profit American Friends of the Royal Foundation is developing projects with a similar focus. This is encouraging news because not only are young people especially vulnerable to mental health issues they are also very likely to use technology and social media.
I have no idea just how many apps are available for mental health and wellbeing. I do know that it isn’t hard to find them. There are apps for everything from relaxation to mindfulness, anxiety, depression, mood monitoring, symptom tracking, supportive communities, crisis intervention, recovery plans — well, you get the picture. Increasingly, major charities and non-profits are listing mental health apps on their websites. Often these apps are free, but, typically, the charities won’t go so far as to endorse them. This webpage from the mental health charity Mind is a case in point. Most of the listed apps are free, which perhaps adds to their appeal, but the charity makes a point of not recommending them.
Pros and cons
The fact that an app is available doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good or that hidden costs aren’t involved. Sometimes the simplest tech can be the most effective. For example, a button that connects you to a real person in a crisis center is a relatively low-tech but potentially highly effective solution. The convenience factor of having apps on a mobile device is certainly a pro, as is the fact that apps are available 24 hours a day.
There is, however, relatively little in the way of app regulation, so inputting sensitive personal data relating to your mood, medication, or your innermost fears and concerns should be taken very seriously. Two-way communication is a fundamental feature of therapy; unless you are entirely convinced that your data is being stored safely, and can be destroyed at your request, tread very carefully.
One of the issues the center for digital mental health innovations wants to address is the effectiveness of technological innovations for all mental health issues. Technology can give the appearance of being slick and cutting edge, but unless it can be shown to be as effective as existing mental health assistance methods, it isn’t helpful. If users find that what is being promised isn’t being delivered, it may negatively influence their perception of other treatment methods.
Unlike existing medication and treatment strategies, there are no guidelines, no panels of highly respected professionals, and no randomized trials to check the merits of the claims made by mental health apps — both for existing apps and for those currently in development. The National Institute of Mental Health rightly points out that part of the problem lies in the slow pace of rigorous scientific testing, which is at odds with rapidly developing technologies. By the time an app passes scientific scrutiny, there is a chance it would already be out of date.
So, while technology holds a lot of promise for mental health, it also opens the door to plenty of other issues that will need to be addressed if we are to feel totally secure about the benefits of mental health apps.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.