WIRED FOR HAPPINESS
Trolling, bullying and PRESSURE to be PERFECT. Social media is BLAMED for huge mental health ISSUES in young people. But could TECH be the CAUSE – and the CURE?
a modern approach to mental health
The FUTURE offers exciting POSSIBILITIES for digital MENTAL healthcare.
An inability to control emotions such as pessimism, guilt and anger; lowered self-esteem; changes in sleep patterns (including excessive sleep); changes in weight or appetite; varying emotions throughout the day; changes to sex drive and less motivation to carry out tasks.’ Listed on a free pamphlet in the clinic of the Black Dog Institute – a leading Australian facility that researches mental illness to lead the prevention and education of it – is a checklist of possible signs of depression in adolescents and young people.
One in four young people are living with a mental disorder, and nine per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds experience high to very high levels of psychological distress, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. People aged 18 to 24 have the highest prevalence of mental disorders of any age group, and youth suicide is the leading cause of death in those aged 15 to 24.
Social media is often blamed for its negative impact on mental health. In January, 2018, hundreds of mourners gathered to bid farewell to Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett, a 14-year-old from the Northern Territory, who took her own life after being bullied on social media (even after her death, trolls on Facebook joked about her suicide). But technology could be the cure, as well as the cause. An innovative group of organisations and start-ups are using gadgets to reduce the symptoms of mental illness and deliver a “digital intervention”.
“Here at the Black Dog Institute, we’re interested in using technology in new ways to prevent mental health problems in young people,” says awardwinning researcher Dr Bridianne O’Dea. “We’ve designed a mobile phone app, Sleep Ninja, to help a young person improve the quality and quantity of their sleep.” Another app, We Click, which is currently in the testing phase, helps young people manage relationship conflict. “The future offers exciting possibilities for digital mental healthcare,” says Bridianne. “Technological advancements will mean that apps and websites can be designed, tested, and disseminated at a more rapid pace – getting into the hands of people who need them more quickly.”
Microsoft is also doing its part. In 2017, the tech giant gave TeenzTalk access to their Silicon Valley campus for an event which brought together 220 teens to connect around mental health experiences and develop tools for wellness. The resources include a crisis text line. Teenagers in need can text the word ‘Bay’ to a number in the US, and a trained counsellor texts back with support and guidance.
In Australia, Kids Helpline is exploring the effect of video messaging. Their Kids Helpline @ School program is designed to connect counsellors with classrooms via video link, through which the counsellors host sessions on cyber safety, resilience and friendship.
On top of this, specialist video games have been shown to help teens regulate their emotional environment. Researchers in New Zealand had success with the SPARX video game, where players create an avatar who restores balance in a virtual world by destroying ‘gloomy negative automatic thoughts’.
For years, online resources have been sharing advice on how to combat mental health issues. But these new offerings are different. Instead of a one-size-fits-all tutorial, they interact with troubled teens in real time and offer bespoke advice depending on their worries. >
“We wanted to create the equivalent of Tinder or Candy Crush for mental health,” says Amanda Hart, the founder of Be a Looper, a world-first mental health check-in and peer-to-peer support app that’s using gamification to connect friends in times of struggle. “We needed a private, interactive place where people could express themselves authentically multiple times a day if they require, without judgment – but with a ring of responsibility around them from their peers, who also check in daily.”
The free tool allows users to keep up to five people ‘in the loop’ with how they’re all feeling on a daily basis, by rating their emotions from one to 10. For more than a decade, Amanda used a similar system to support her friends. In times of difficulty, she would ask them to text her a score, to let her know how they felt that day, in an unobtrusive way.
She learnt the technique at a suicide prevention retreat for young adults, where she volunteered in her late teens. In its launch week alone, Be A Looper was downloaded in more than 130 cities across 30 countries, reaching all continents (with the exception of Antarctica).
It seems that handheld devices are a powerful, healing medium. When the Black Dog Institute was developing their Smooth Sailing service – a platform that screens the mental health of students – a comment they received from adolescent testers was, ‘Does it have an app?’ (It doesn’t yet, but the website is mobile-enabled.)
“Apps are easily accessible and allow for increased privacy,” says Bridianne. “However, there are advantages and disadvantages to be considered when designing an intervention. Digital design for mental health needs to carefully consider the needs of the user and the administrators, including privacy, speed of data and data transfer.”
Virtual reality also has potential. New research underway by The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health in Melbourne and King’s College London is using off-the-shelf headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive to help young patients relive experiences that trigger mental health trauma, and then overcome them.
So, what should tech start-ups that want to enter the ‘e-mental health’ space consider? “Ensure it’s promoted by the right people,” says Neal Archbold, creator of Nuddge, an online community for people who wish to boost their emotional wellbeing. “If a teacher tells a kid to download an app, they probably won’t. It needs credible names, faces and voices to drive adoption. Also, follow the rule ‘give to get’. Young people are more willing to be open about their condition when they can also read personal and relevant [information].”
And what about social media? “Use the best ones and avoid the worst of it,” he recommends. “Connectivity and support is key for emotional wellbeing. So, micro-communities, small circles and intimate digital relationships are more important that 5000 [online] friends.”
We WANTED to create the EQUIVALENT of Tinder or Candy Crush for MENTAL HEALTH.
In need of support? Call Lifeline on 13 11 14.