When it comes to our health and wellbeing, technology has always been a double-edged sword. For decades there were concerns that television was creating generations of introverted couch potatoes, despite its obvious (at times) educational value. Similar worries have been expressed about the internet, while harmful activities like trolling have rightly received widespread media coverage. The addictive world of social media has even been attacked by its own founders, with a former Facebook VP claiming in December that the platform was “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”.
However, technology also has the power to help and support us, particularly in terms of our mental health. This is finally receiving widespread coverage and support after centuries of institutional neglect, coupled with societal reluctance to acknowledge common issues. With 18% of American adults suffering from some form of mental illness every year, the subject has finally become too big to ignore. Taboos are breaking down, national debates are starting up, and mental health issues are no longer seen as a shameful secret to be hidden away from public view.
As a result of our increasingly open approach to mental health, this decade has seen a technology-driven sea change towards conditions like anxiety and bipolar disorder. Below are some of the ways in which the internet and electronic devices are helping to improve mental health…
As a fully immersive medium VR is at the forefront of progress in mental health issues. Virtual reality headsets are being used to treat conditions from delusions to PTSD, with Oxford University creating a VR spin-out company to assess and treat mental problems. This VR research hub has seen incredibly positive results in trials on pain management, phobias and paranoia. It encourages patients to explore virtual scenarios they either couldn’t or wouldn’t tackle in real life.
Oxford University’s findings are consistent with hundreds of other studies in this area. One of the first VR experiments back in 1995 successfully helped people suffering from a fear of heights, while today’s headsets are bringing virtual reality into the mainstream. Affordable tools like the crowdfunded Oculus Rift enable scientists and programmers to create virtual environments where people can analyze their behaviors in new ways. One program places anxiety sufferers in a therapy session (playing avatars of themselves) and also with Sigmund Freud, encouraging them to view themselves in a more positive light. Many experts believe VR could become invaluable in the coming years, though as a complement to conventional therapies rather than a direct replacement.
VR’s potential is still being developed in research laboratories, but wearables are already having a tangible impact on our state of mind. Since a healthy body supports a healthy mind, the Fitbit’s sleep tracking capabilities or the Apple Watch’s heart rate monitor might be cited as examples. However, current and forthcoming wearables are gradually evolving from physical to psychological monitoring and support.
An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign is currently raising finance for the Reveal device, which combines sensory data with an advanced algorithm to predict imminent behavior spikes among autistic children. Crowdfunding has already given us the ZENTA wristband, cross-referencing perspiration and respiration levels against data recorded on a linked smartphone to identify stress levels and unusual behavior patterns. Ringly’s jewelry range assists wearers with meditation goals and breathing exercises – both known to lower anxiety levels and improve stressful situations such as exposure to phobias. And Pip flags up rising anxiety and stress levels by measuring electrical variations through skin pores in our fingertips, communicating with Android or iOS apps to help users manage their state of mind.
The wearables outlined above supply their findings and feedback via apps, which have proliferated in recent years. While academic studies have indicated many apps lack scientific credibility, some have been highly praised. Headspace is one example, offering hundreds of themed meditation and mindfulness sessions for regular practice and emergency deployment.
Mindfulness is becoming a key battleground in mental health treatment. Numerous apps have been built to exploit the human mind’s inability to worry while concentrating hard on immediate surroundings and events – breathing, sense of touch, ambient sounds, etc. Mindfulness originated in ancient Buddhist traditions, but its renaissance in mobile apps has been one of this decade’s more unexpected tech phenomena.
Some apps have been designed to tackle specific issues, such as the forthcoming bullying support tool Code Blue, or the Department for Veterans Affairs’ PTSD Coach for managing and tracking symptoms. Nonetheless, the relative affordability of app development means they’re often ineffectual – or little more than advertising vehicles. It’s worth reading the permissions list and a few recent reviews before downloading a particular app, to ascertain its quality.
Huge online communities have developed around mental health websites, including The Mighty. Its seven-figure user base contributes blogs and discuss health challenges, sharing advice and generating a level of support that would otherwise be unattainable for many of its members.
Numerous other message board portals have been launched, such as PsychCentral and the self-explanatory Mental Health Forum. Then there are information-based websites like HealthyPlace.com, which provides consumer and expert advice on disorders and medications. As with many other websites, there is also a blog section, reflecting both the informative nature of blogging and the therapeutic effect it brings to its writers. Many people feel better after expressing their innermost thoughts in writing and publishing them, typically using a pseudonym.
The UK’s National Health Service has praised a number of website-based services including Moodscope, which measures user’s moods through a proven testing system. It records results on a graph to identify triggers, with support provided via a buddy network. Similarly, Big White Wall combines creative outlets and self-help programs, while a thriving community offers anonymous peer support in a moderated environment. Although it’s based in the UK, Big White Wall also has a free app for American Android and iOS users.
We live in an age when British princes talk about depression in podcasts, and Bryony Gordon’s groundbreaking interview with Prince Harry last year was perhaps the first time a podcast about mental health issues entered the global mainstream. As an author and founder of the Mental Health Mates walking group, Gordon’s experiences with OCD and depression have made an international success out of her Mad World podcast. Other famous podcasters in this area include former pro tennis player Dennis Simsek, registered nurse Kelli Walker and comedian John Moe, who interviews other comics about their battles with depression.
Like blogging, podcasting is not the preserve of a self-preserving media elite – it can be performed by anyone. The democratization of public debate is one of the internet’s finer qualities, and modern smartphones contain all the apps necessary to make your own podcast. Some of today’s most well-known and widely listened to podcasters have built their reputations from scratch in this medium, using hosting platforms like BluBrry, Libsyn and Buzzsprout. Some services are free while others charge a modest fee, but all provide stable platforms with stat counters and plentiful bandwidth for multiple downloads.
Some of the most effective solutions to mental health issues in our homes and workplaces are simple devices costing a few dollars. Full spectrum lighting helps people with Seasonal Affective Disorder by mimicking the serotonin-producing effects of natural daylight, using white-light bulbs compatible with normal desk lamps. Scientifically formulated pillow sprays have been proven in clinical trials to help people fall asleep more quickly and wake up more refreshed; the restorative power of a good night’s sleep is particularly well known among insomniacs and people with depression.
Motion-sensing monitors can be used to identify distressed behavior among elderly people in the early stages of dementia, and interactive devices like web-enabled security cameras can give reassurance to people suffering from safety-related panic attacks. The convergence of technology in virtual assistants like Alexa has seen Amazon’s home help offering medical advice and support for people reporting depression or anxiety. Apple has recently recruited a psychologist to make its Siri VA better at answering requests for help, while Google employs a ‘personality’ team to provide support for Google Assistant customers. In the future, these virtual assistants are likely to be on the cutting edge of domestic support for health issues.
Although technology is successfully being used to help and support people with mental health issues, excessive exposure to digital devices is widely acknowledged as being harmful. Social media may become dangerously addictive, gaming is often a solitary experience, and discussion forums frequently degenerate into highly personal criticism.
We live in an age of unprecedented debate about mental health, with an array of technological assistance and support that would have been unthinkable as recently as 2010. And yet, as technology continues to encroach into our lives, driving our cars and managing our schedules, unplugging from the virtual world is becoming more important than ever. As well as preventing offline problems morphing into online ones, taking time out from the internet enables us to refocus, recharge and re-engage with our surroundings.