The Growing Role of Technology in Mental Health: How Silicone Circuits are Changing Neural Ones

Technology is a double-edged sword. Mairead Boland explores how we can use it to our advantage in the treatment of mental illnesses. [br]In recent years a lot of media attention has been focused on the negative effects that technology can have on our mental health. Attention is mostly paid to how children and teenagers suffer from cyber bullying, and how excessive time spent on social media has been found to result in a negative body image. Studies have even found a link between social media use and a desire for plastic surgery. The website Psychology Today recently reported that over 60% of us experience feelings of jealousy or inadequacy on a daily basis by comparing ourselves to others on Facebook. This constant feeling of jealousy can lead to low self-esteem and depression. These issues are bound to become ever more pressing in our increasingly technological society. Less attention is paid however to the many positive ways in which technology can be used to enhance our mental health. Technology is increasingly being used to treat mental illnesses. One such technology is referred to as computerized Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or “cCBT” for short. It has been shown to be very effective in the treatment of schizophrenia, anxiety, mild to moderate depression, and some phobias.
One of the primary advantages of cCBT is that it can be delivered on-demand. It is also far less expensive than visiting a therapist.”
With the growing prevalence of smartphones in mind, professionals working in mental health areas have begun to develop apps which can be used by people suffering from anxiety and depression. Users of the app Beating the Blues complete 8 hour long lessons, which are designed to help them change their behaviour and focus on doing activities they enjoy. It helps users to make a plan and motivate themselves to carry out enjoyable activities. It also contains videos of people who have used the app before so that users know they are not alone in feeling depressed or anxious. Beating the Blues has been very successful and is currently being recommended by G.Ps in Ireland. Fear Fighter is an application similar to Beating the Blues. It consists of nine steps which help users to overcome their fears. It even provides exposure therapy, which allows users of the app to simulate being exposed to their fear frequently enough so that over time the fear diminishes. Another promising digital method of mental health treatment is Avatar Therapy, the pilot study of which is currently being carried out in UCL. The aim of Avatar Therapy is to reduce the severity and rate of voices hallucinated by sufferers of schizophrenia. The program works by allowing the person to create an avatar and assign it to a voice which speaks to them. A therapist can speak to the patient through the avatar and coach them about how to control the voice. The idea is that when the user hears voices in their day-to-day life, they have built up the ability to confront them, and in doing so, diminish their power. This study is especially promising as it has been found to be more effective than current pharmacological treatments for schizophrenia.
“Avatar Therapy is especially promising as it has been found to be more effective than current pharmacological treatments for schizophrenia.”
There has also been a recent surge in research into the use of cCBT to treat eating disorders on university campuses. One study aimed to use cCBT to increase awareness of the risks associated with eating disorders and to prevent symptom progression of anorexia and bulimia. It also aimed to improve body image. In a small scale study on University Campuses, it was found that participants had less severe symptoms of eating disorders when compared with a control group who did not get cCBT. Computerised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has some notable advantages over traditional CBT. One of the primary advantages is that it can be delivered on-demand. Somebody who is suffering from depression can log onto their computer, tablet or smartphone, and use an app whenever they are feeling low, rather than waiting for an appointment to see a therapist. Additionally, it can be used by those who do not live near a therapist, or who are not feeling confident enough to attend a therapist. It is also far less expensive than visiting a therapist. It is likely that the popularity of cCBT will continue to grow as more research bears out its effectiveness. The treatment method is already being recommended by therapists and G.Ps in numerous countries. Given that this is a new tool in mental health, there are likely ways in which it has yet to be exploited. It appears that in the near future computerised forms of therapy may supplement traditional therapy, and may make therapy an affordable and accessible option for thousands of people.