Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Another Side of Technology

Your mic is muted. You catch a glimpse of your hair and wish you washed it last night. Your connection is unstable. You are feeling fatigued and have a slight headache. You send a message about your doctor’s appointment to “Everyone” that you meant to send only to your friend in the top right corner of your screen. Oops.

We are all zoomed out. We are fretting about the negative impact of all this screen time on our own and our kids’ mental health. Our worries are real and reasonable and will be the focus of another Five on Friday. But there is another side of the story. An upside. This pandemic has catapulted us into a new era of leveraging technology to support our mental health. And it is much needed.

1. Teletherapy. Most therapists used to believe that psychotherapy delivered by phone or online was inferior to face to face therapy. As therapists, we like people, and we have a high need to connect. As a result of the pandemic, we we are learning that young children and people with serious or acute mental illness are typically not well served by phone or online psychotherapy. However, the good news is that for adolescents and adults with mild to moderate mental health conditions, outcomes for teletherapy are largely comparable to meeting in person. This means that if you are feeling like you need mental health services, you do not need to wait until this pandemic passes. It is likely that meeting with a therapist by phone or online video will provide significant therapeutic benefit now.

2. Virtual Therapy Sessions. Technology leveraged behavioral health companies like Lyra Health and MindStrong Health are taking telehealth to a whole new level. Lyra Health offers online, evidence-based mental health services to companies as benefits for their employees. Lyra Health uses artificial intelligence and technology innovation at every juncture to make it easier for people to get access to care and be matched to the right therapist, psychiatrist, or coach. Mindstrong Health provides free services for individuals with serious mental illness. Using technology to monitor and measure physical activity and generate digital biomarkers, Mindstrong aims to use this passive data collection from smartphones and computers and harness information that asses mental acuity to provide insight to how a patient is doing

3. Expanding our Reach. One of the downsides to traditional psychotherapy and meeting in person is distance and logistics. Technology is making it possible to provide consultations and care to individuals who might otherwise find it difficult to participate in face to face counseling because of physical disabilities, rural or remote geographic locations, lack of transportation, employment constraints, or symptoms of mental illness. Leveraging technology to bring the therapist to the person in need, instead of the other way around, saves time, reduces burden, and enables connections across distances that would heretofore have been insurmountable.

4. At Your Fingertips. I love my Headspace app, and its widespread adoption suggests that I am not alone. Popular prior to the pandemic, apps like Headspace and Calm have seen huge uptake this past year. These apps provide meditation, relaxation, stress-reduction, and self-care programs for users on demand – whenever we wish, wherever we may be. The data suggest that they are effective in promoting positive mood and reducing stress. They help us cope with the fatigue and the wear and tear of daily life. Rigorous quantitative data are limited, but qualitative data and testimonials abound. Extrapolating from existing science on the health benefits of meditation and mindfulness, it is reasonable to expect that such apps have real potential benefit. Just keep in mind that these apps are not intended as psychotherapy interventions to address specific mental disorders but rather to promote wellbeing and support our overall coping, mental health, and resilience.

5. Free online support groups. Similar to in-person support groups, online groups provide a forum for people to share personal experiences and feelings, coping strategies, or firsthand information about mental health, illness, and treatment. In addition to the benefit of being free, such online support groups offer access and flexible participation. Risks of free support groups should be considered carefully, including inappropriate engagement as a result of greater anonymity, susceptibility to misinformation, stalking, and misuse of the group to promote a product or commit fraud. Mayo Clinic provides helpful guidance for evaluating online support groups and Support Groups Central is a good place to find information about groups that are available. You can also go directly to the sites of reputable mental health organizations like NAMI, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Mental Health America, and Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance to find information about their free online support groups. Free support groups for substance use problems have a long history, with Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon best known among them. In addition to these programs, LifeRing, and Women for Sobriety have all expanded their online offerings.

The world has changed in dramatic ways this past year, and that includes how we deliver mental health services. As much as technology may have the potential to negatively impact our mental health, there is another side of the story. With public health restrictions around meeting in person, necessity has catalyzed invention. Although we still have a lot to learn, technology supported mental health services are steadily proving their worth – providing much needed mental health care to many people. Even our pups agree.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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