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.

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