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Is digital technology a game-changer for mental health?

By Mark Smith, Marketing Officer, Digital Communities Wales

Poor mental health…

It impacts on workplaces, the economy, communities and families. You could argue that it impacts on all of us in some way.

Mental health in general is being talked about more than ever, through campaigns, media and…social media.

How have modern developments in digital technology changed the way in which we treat mental ill health, support our management of stress and anxiety, talk to each other about mental health, and access information that might help us to learn more about what can be a complex subject.

I feel well qualified to be writing this blog post.

I have bipolar disorder, elements of borderline personality disorder, and have worked in digital inclusion for more than ten years. My digital inclusion experience has been through working on the Communities @One programme and Communities 2.0 project, which were both funded by Welsh Government and the European Regional Development Fund, and the Welsh Government project Digital Communities Wales.

I have been a mental health campaigner, activist and heavily involved in the arts and mental health scene. I am passionate about people being given the opportunities to manage their mental health in as fair a way as possible.

Given that I’ve worked in digital inclusion for more than ten years, how much has digital technology changed in that time? Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were still relatively new on the scene in 2009, the first FitBit had just come on to the market, the Android v iOS rivalry was starting to warm up, but it would be another year before the iPad was born.

How much of that surprises you, knowing what you know now, and how you use devices and the web today? How many of these developments have helped you with your mental health in some way?

Today, we have apps and websites that can help us with a range of things in relation to mental health, including mood charts, online communities and podcasts:

Elefriends is an online community, run by Mind, where people can talk about mental health, and general everyday things, in a supportive environment. Cyber bullying is something that can have a severely detrimental effect on the mental health of young people. The Safer Internet Centre website has advice for parents, carers and schools.

My therapist has recommended the audiobook ‘Counselling for Toads’ to me, as we develop a new way of working. I can just sit there and listen, absorbing the information and think about how it can be put into practice. Whether you need your information on the go, or in the privacy of your home, podcasts are another good way of supporting your mental health. Have you listened to one that you’d like to tell us about?

I’ve used my smartphone to set reminders of when I should take my medication. I’ve forgotten to do so on a number of occasions in the past, and you might only discover that as a bad day ensues. This can also be useful to remind you of appointments. Missed appointments at mental health services are high, for understandable reasons, so being able to contact your provider online, to cancel or rearrange, can help everyone in that situation.

One that’s new on me is ‘Big White Wall’, a social enterprise that has helped more than 76,000 people, with services including online therapy. This is interesting, given the difficulty people can face when trying to access services for counselling and other talking therapies. Would you be happy to use something similar to Facetime or Skype to talk to a therapist?

Campaigns such as Time to Change Wales have lots of resources on their website, to help start conversations around mental health. This is important when looking to raise awareness, and seeking help. I have used a mood tracker to help me check how I was coping with bipolar disorder. Again, there have been advances and new ones coming onto the market since, so it’s something I might go back to.

Voice recognition devices have been all the rage in the last year, with Amazon Echo’s Alexa among the most popular. Well now, you can talk to a device in such a way that it will help with your mental health. Mindscape is one tool you can access through Alexa, which can help you through a panic attack.

Managing an existing mental health condition is important to those that are dealing with ongoing issues. We’ve shared just a small sample of the things that are available to help people with their mental health, in whatever form, through the use of digital technology. There are lots of other examples you can explore, with a number posted on the Mind website.

So, to come back to my original question…Is digital technology a game changer for mental health?

For me, it’s a case of yes and no, but mostly yes. Social media is such a busy place, which is full of content that can be helpful or harmful to someone’s mental health. If you’re feeling fragile, getting into a heated debate with a bunch of strangers might not be the best thing for you. However, you can also get reassurance by seeing that others are experiencing something similar to you.

There’s been such a proliferation of apps, websites and devices created in the last ten years, which can help people deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life, and diagnosed conditions that are arguably more serious in nature. I believe this coincides with a period in society where rates of mental illness have increased year-on-year.

As is the general approach to managing your mental health, find what works for you in relation to digital technology. There is definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution for this, but I believe there is something for most of us who, like me, are tackling mental health problems.