The future is digital. Nowadays, it’s hard to find something that has not been computerized. Stores have replaced cashiers with self-ordering payment systems, chatbots are filling in the role of customer service representatives, and companies like Amazon have made it possible to go grocery shopping without ever leaving your house. So it should come as no surprise that the mental health field has also been affected by technology’s rapid advancements.
Mental health apps have made it accessible to reach a counselor at the push of a button. The COVID pandemic sped up technology’s growing role in mental health as the world endured an escalating mental health crisis. People no longer needed to wait until the following week to talk about their problems — mental health apps made it possible to text a counselor right away or schedule an emergency video session.
There’s a lot of potential in using technology to provide mental health services beyond smartphone apps. There are talks of using virtual reality to create peer-to-peer mental health support and attempts for AI chatbots to replace human therapists. Despite offering mental health services on multiple platforms, the idea of having people spend so much time on their devices may isolate patients and further increase any symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are also privacy issues regarding how companies use people’s personal data.
We are on the precipice of a digital mental health revolution. Navigating this next chapter requires us to remain optimistic but realistic about what is possible with technology.
Technology has made mental health more easily accessible — all you need is an Internet connection. Smartphone apps provide a low-cost alternative to in-person therapy, which can run up to hundreds of dollars each week without insurance. Additionally, not everyone can fit in-person therapy into their schedule. Mobile apps allow people an opportunity to set up appointments at their convenience, whether it’s after work or in the middle of the night.
Telehealth services allow mental health professionals to reach out to people that may live in areas where it’s hard to talk to a counselor in person. About 2.6 million adults living in rural areas have depression. Beyond traveling large distances, buy pills viagra super active online overnight shipping rural residents are more likely to be deterred from seeking help because of the shame and stigma surrounding mental health. This sentiment is also felt among people of different ethnicities. Black adults, for example, are more likely than white adults to report feeling a continued sense of sadness and helplessness. Yet only one in three Black adults actually seek out mental health services, as 63 percent of people associate mental illness as a sign of personal weakness.
Telehealth makes it convenient to talk to someone discreetly without feeling judged by others. It also provides an introductory first step to seeking mental health services at their own pace.
Technology is redefining how we think of therapy. “People aren’t returning to the couch,” Priya Singhvi, a professional counselor and founder of Meaningful Minds Therapy in Texas, told Verywell Mind. “Covid-19 dramatically affected the practice of talk therapy by incorporating wide scale adoption of technology. Many clinicians have made the choice to continue treating people remotely. Now that telehealth has taken off, there’s no going back.” Beyond smartphone apps, there has been a push to apply technology in other aspects of mental health.
Virtual reality therapy
Virtual reality allows users to transport themselves into another world and personalize it to their needs or preferences. Research on virtual reality has found it effective for exposure therapy. People who are scared of heights, for example, can safely confront their fears in a controlled environment. The real-life simulations could also be used as another diagnostic tool. Clinicians would be able to make real-time observations on how people likely behave in their daily life. Virtual environments are known for creating physiological changes and induce symptoms of anxiety or paranoia when confronted with certain scenarios. Seeing their responses could create a more well-informed diagnosis than relying on multiple survey assessments.
Another application of virtual reality is in managing mental health. People who are chronically ill, for example, may be physically unable to go outside or be on their feet for long periods of time. Virtual reality could help with providing a change of scenery and temporarily dissociating from daily stressors.
The creation of the metaverse gives the opportunity to create communities with others without ever leaving your doorstep. One initiative is Innerworld, a 3D virtual world where people collaborate as a community to teach themselves mental health tools. People join in as anonymous avatars with current members logging on from all over the world 24 hours a day. The peer-to-peer counseling involves live mental health groups learning different cognitive behavioral techniques. Though they are not licensed therapists, the peer-based approach is intended to provide immediate help amidst a nationwide shortage of therapists. Online cognitive behavioral interventions have been effective in reducing symptoms for several mental health problems such as anxiety, ADHD, and bulimia.
“Instead of using technology to disconnect us, we’ve built a world that creates high connectivity and emotional safety,” says music icon Jewel who partnered with the new mental health platform. One of the benefits she emphasizes about the community is its safety protocols. “We have a lot of troll control and it only takes about 20 seconds for us to identify one and do an IP banning so they can’t come and use a different username.”
At a press conference, Innerworld users shared their success with the virtual platform in navigating their lives. One member talked about not being able to leave the house by herself for six years. Two weeks after attending Innerworld meetings, she was able to overcome her anxiety and go outside. Another benefit of Innerworld is the platform is available 24/7. One user reported having a panic attack and logging online, where people were welcoming and able to provide support immediately.
One of the greatest technological marvels this year was the release of ChatGPT, which is one of the most advanced AI tools available. It can create human-like conversations and create responses based on the context of the conversation or request. ChatGPT’s achievements include writing college essays, working on computer code, and making jokes. Since the viral AI chatbot mimics human conversation, some people have been using it as a therapist in lieu of real ones. While chatbots are not replacing therapists anytime soon, there is a potential of using AI to supplement therapy sessions.
Passive symptom tracking
A new research endeavor is developing digital health tools with built in sensors that would collect data on a person’s physiological state. Any sudden change in behavior such as heart rate, sleep activity, and motion could assess and alert your doctor of any symptoms related to depression or anxiety.
The emphasis is on passiveness. The tool would be built into a smartphone app or wearable technology like a Fitbit or Apple Watch and after the initial set up, it does not require any further actions from the user.
Despite all the bells and whistles, there are some issues with relying solely on technology. The AI chatbots, for example, base their answers on data from the internet, and mental health experts warn there is always a chance of the chatbot giving incorrect or biased answers.
“There is a lot of excitement about ChatGPT, and in the future, I think we will see language models like this have some role in therapy. But it won’t be today or tomorrow,” John Torous, a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told BuzzFeed News. “First we need to carefully assess how well they really work. We already know they can say concerning things as well and have the potential to cause harm.”
Relying on devices also deprives people of the human experience that’s needed in therapy. While virtual reality can foster connections with others online, research studies have brought up concerns about people feeling persistent loneliness and isolation with spending all their time online. The metaverse may alleviate these feelings by interacting with avatars instead of a random screen. However, constant exposure to other profiles could subconsciously cause people to compare themselves with others or distort themselves into creating an exaggerated profile that is not true to themselves.
One thing is for sure: mental health is more accessible than ever. And in the right hands, technology can recreate yourself into a more confident and better version of you.
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