Technology and mental health: is there light in lockdown?
07 December 2020
Just over a week ago, we conducted a poll at the Charity Finance Week conference to find out how concerned charity leaders were about their own and their teams mental health - and over 80% were either concerned or very concerned.
Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at The Bank of England, referred to this time as "an era of anxiety" and if left unattended could turn into a doom loop causing a depression in our mental state as well and the economic position.
There is no doubt this has been a challenging year in many ways, with no one being unaffected by the "social pandemic" as we all experienced being isolated from key people in our lives. So, what can we do to manage our mental health and ensure we are able to use technology for the best outcome?
The impact of technology on our mental health has been widely discussed and debated over the past decade, ever since our omnipresent smartphones made us instantly connected to, and accessible by, others 24/7.
These conversations have increased in prevalence and intensity in the media in recent years, particularly with regards to young people; recent research found that adolescents who spend an increased amount of time in front of digital screens are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression. Up to 1 in 10 children are impacted with mental health challenges.
Right now, with the social distancing measures put in place to combat the spread of Coronavirus meant that UK adults were spending an average of a quarter of their waking day online, with increased screen time potentially a negative factor during a period of time that’s had a major impact on the UK’s mental health.
So whether it’s reports linking smartphone addiction to anxiety, or Government recommendations stating that social media companies have a duty of care to protect young people’s health, it can be hard to find positive news stories about technology’s link to wellbeing. Yet there are always two sides to every coin, and there have been a number of highly useful digital innovations that are making a positive difference.
Valuable online mental health resources
Prolonged exposure to technology can, of course, have a negative impact: you can have too much of anything. Yet it’s importance to also consider the ease with which people can turn to the internet for mental health support and resources.
A survey of more than 2,000 UK employees, carried out recently, found that 72% of workers had used or would use online counselling services or helplines, which provide the opportunity to seek help in private and at a comfortable, individual pace.
Leading mental health charities such as The Charlie Waller Trust now offer a plethora of online resources and support to those in need via their digital channels, while online support services like Kooth, a mental health and wellbeing platform for children and young people, allows instant access to trained counsellors. In fact, this initiative, which is anonymous and free to use, has witnessed an incredible need for its service with more than 4,000 log-ins per day.
ORCHA: Unlocking the power of ‘digital health’
There are numerous apps now available in the global marketplace designed to help users learn new thinking or coping skills - Calm and HeadSpace are two of the market leaders in the mental wellbeing app space that’ve risen in popularity during the lockdown months. And new comers such as Samten are offering free access to key workers at the NHS, and children in this time of need and into the future.
Although the success of these apps will vary from person-to-person, when used alongside ‘traditional’ medical appointments and support pathways they can serve as useful aids to help map emotions or learn how best to manage mental health warning signs and the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Some of the best apps are those which have been approved by leading health organisation ORCHA. This was set up to scour the marketplace for technological developments which can be safely used within clinical settings. Mental health charity Mind also lists a wide range of apps, and runs its own online community of connection and shared experiences, Side by Side. While social media companies remain under pressure to take responsibility for harmful content, chat rooms like this go some way to providing a viable and trusted alternative, when it’s needed most.
Being mindful with tech
Unsurprisingly, there’s serious money to be made in mindfulness apps, especially as the coronavirus mental health crisis continues to take its toll. While the concept of using smartphones to improve mental health may seem contradictory, these powerful gadgets, when used intentionally and with purpose, can be a powerful force for good.
The rise of wearable gadgets also presents a host of mental health possibilities; in recent years scientists have been working on inventions to identify suicidal inclinations, panic attacks and depressive episodes before they come to a head. Mindstrong demonstrates how this can be achieved in practice: the technology company examines smartphone swipes and taps to measure cognitive control, processing speed and emotion and identify changes in a person’s mental health. By tapping into our habits, scientists are approaching mental health in a new way.
Psychologists are also taking important steps towards treating traumas and paranoias with the help of virtual reality; this highly immersive technology is being used to help treat military personnel come to terms with PTSD in both the US and on this side of the Atlantic, while trials at the University of Central Florida have shown that using VR to expose combat veterans to scenes which trigger memories can help to overcome trauma. In the UK, virtual reality therapy is increasingly being considered as a viable method to treat people with a range of phobias, such as a fear of heights.
Where do you stand on the debate?
Wellbeing and technology is a growing area of debate, and the conversation is only going to continue now that more of us are considering our mental health than ever before.
Undoubtedly there is more work to be done to strike a healthy balance with our devices, but don’t get too caught up by the negative news headlines: dig a little deeper and it’s clear to see that technology has a very positive and powerful role to play when it comes to managing and supporting good mental health.
You and your organisation can make a difference by using technology in the right way - and you can begin today. Wondering how? Speak to our Chief Wondermaker and explore the possibilities.