October 2nd, 2023
In the UK, mobile phone ownership reached an astounding 88% among adults in 2021. As smartphones have become the norm, technology access has never been more ubiquitous.
These devices enable us to communicate through calls, texts, voice notes, and emails while also granting us the power to stream content and make purchases from individuals halfway across the globe—all with just a few taps on our screens. However, with this unparalleled access to technology, what does it mean for mental health, and are there ways we can harness it to improve our overall well-being?
Mental health and technology – How are they linked?
A negative preconception
Research in the past few decades has painted a rather pessimistic view of tech, citing the impacts of isolation, exposure, online in-group formation, and the victimisation of people on the internet. This association is so pervasive that in 1998, the Oxford English Dictionary added an entry to describe one of the negative potentials of technology. The OED defines cyberbullying as ‘the use of information technology to bully a person by sending or posting text or images of an intimidating or threatening nature.’
But this is only one side of the picture – technology isn’t innately harmful. Research shows us that for all its dark sides, technology can be an innovative tool for connection.
The rise of mental health tech
As technology develops and becomes even more commonplace, entrepreneurs in the tech industry and internet users alike strive to increase the positive potential of tech access. With the rise in well-being-focused start-ups, the focus is shifting. Is there a way our phones can be used to help us burgeon empathy? Can they be used as tools to improve mental health?
Research by ORCHA (Organization of the Review of Care and Health Applications) indicates that the number of mental health app downloads increased by 200% between the summer of 2019 and 2020. In comparison, research suggests that below 50% of in-person mental health services are being used, suggesting that mental health technologies are becoming an increasingly popular strategy for people to manage their well-being at home.
Can technology help us reduce mental health stigma?
Social media and mental health
Technology has certainly made mental health more visible. Many social media accounts online are run by individuals sharing their lived experiences. Many explain they do so, hoping to bring attention to frequently misunderstood diagnoses such as Tourette’s, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). These kinds of pages have catalysed the growth of networks online where people can go to educate themselves or seek solace. However, they have also received backlash, with articles being written that openly question the legitimacy of these individuals’ diagnoses, therefore implicating that there is still a lot of progress to be made for mental health to be a safe topic for discussion online.
Room for improvement?
Research published by Mind in February 2023 reports that almost 20 million adults ‘never speak about their mental health,’ either with professionals or loved ones. This indicates that whilst social media has opened conversations for some, sharing about mental health is still too difficult for others. This suggests other avenues of support are needed. Innovative research into the applications of technology such as virtual reality and video games for well-being purposes. These meta-analyses conclude that these technologies could ultimately mitigate public stigma’ in the wider community.
Alongside gaming and VR, there has been a rise in the well-being app – downloadable applications that focus solely on well-being strategies that we can carry in our pockets.
Mental health apps: What’s out there?
A quick search of ‘well-being’ on Apple’s App Store conjures hundreds of results. The Algorithm even notes ‘mental’ and ‘digital’ at the top, asking you to narrow your search.
Lifestyle magazine Marie Claire posted their own ‘top 13’ app recommendations for Mental Health Awareness Month, indicating how pervasive these applications have become.
Mental health apps tend to fall into three major categories:
- Mood tracking
Each category takes a different approach to mental health.
Mood tracking apps
Mood tracking apps act as virtual diaries. They function as daily logs, asking you to fill out an entry at the end of each day. They can be detailed – offering colour-coded charts that map your year in moods – or more sparse, asking you to rate your mood from ‘low’ to ‘great’, to log your daily activities, or even provide you with space to write any key thoughts or feelings for the day.
Mental health professionals have recommended this kind of reflective journaling for some time, and researchers link this kind of activity with improving emotional expressivity.
Compared to several decades ago, mindfulness awareness in the western world has proliferated. Despite this, only 15% of adults in the UK know how to practise mindfulness. Meditation apps are typically guided – containing short daily recordings (stories or instructions) that allow you time to sit and gather yourself. With the aim of grounding, meditation apps are associated with the promotion of calmness and better sleep, with one study concluding that they are particularly effective in improving ‘self-compassion.’
Therapy apps are the newest and perhaps the most involved form of mental health app. Generally speaking, the apps facilitate matching a client to a therapist, allowing individuals to access a therapeutic relationship with a trained professional.
Integrating mental health tech into your self-care routine
ORCHA recently shared that the use of mental health apps is ‘still on the rise’, and we have seen an increase in the number of apps available for free or specifically accessible through the NHS. This indicates that mental health apps are becoming embedded in our approach to psychological well-being, and many of us are integrating them into our self-care routines.
Some of the ways you can do this include:
- Using a mindfulness app during your bus or train commute
- Listening to a guided meditation or body scan before bed
- Establishing a positive relationship with a mental health professional via a therapy app
- Checking in with yourself through a daily mood log
- Using regulated forums to get tips for specific well-being-related issues
Mental health apps: What are the positives?
Before the advent of mental health apps, Samaritans provided invaluable support without the need for a prior referral. While their efforts have been immensely impactful, many individuals faced a significant barrier when seeking assistance—the intimidating prospect of making a phone call.
Mental health apps offer a distinct advantage: they often eliminate the need for direct conversation with another person. Even therapy apps frequently employ chat functions, catering to those who may be self-conscious or sharing living spaces. These apps also offer discretion, allowing users to access support on-demand, promoting personal responsibility without needing scheduled appointments.
Mental health apps: What are the negatives?
Limits to access
While technology may be a fantastic option for some, the wealth of well-being resources being moved online can cause issues when digital poverty and digital literacy are still common. Only some have access to a smartphone or can afford to pay network charges and app subscriptions. Similarly, some people do not know how to access these resources. Research by scientists at the University of York indicates that there is ‘ a stark digital skills deficit among people with severe mental illness which means they struggle to access key services which are increasingly online.’
Data and privacy
With the increase in online data leaks and confusion around how websites and applications store data, it’s understandable that many people are nervous about how mental health apps will store their data and if there’s a risk of confidentiality breaches.
The Evolution of Tech: What Does It Mean for Our Mental Health?
Ralston, Andrews and Hope, in their paper on the promise of mental health technology, conclude that if there is enough of a process to ‘guide the translation of these technologies into data-driven dissemination and implementation strategies’, then a potential framework for positive change could catalyse the start of a revolution for well-being.
A study into mental health apps concluded that ‘apps can be effective in managing mental health and improving life functioning even during times of significant global unrest and, like all psychotherapies, are influenced by client features,’ indicating that whilst mental health apps are making waves in our well-being, they may still face some of the issues that permeate more traditional forms of mental health support.
Get support for mental health
If you seek specialist, confidential advice for mental health concerns, the team at UKAT London Clinic is here to help. We take a holistic approach to mental health and offer expert person-centred care to our clients in our new clinic in the capital city.
(Click here to see works sited)
-  https://www.statista.com/forecasts/1143723/smartphone-users-in-the-world
-  https://www.oed.com/dictionary/cyber-bullying_n?tab=factsheet#212385852
-  https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/bullying-and-cyberbullying/
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7366940/
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-  https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/almost-20-million-adults-never-speak-about-mental-health-and-it-s-set-to-get-worse-due-to-the-cost-of-living-crisis/
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