People often bring up technology as a factor that exacerbates current mental health issues and potentially creates new ones.
While it’s true that technology does have numerous unhealthy characteristics associated with it, it can also help those with mental health needs.
1. Technology improves access to care
Statistics published in 2017 by Mental Health America indicate that one out of five mentally ill adults are unable to get the care they need. That’s due to a variety of circumstances, such as lack of providers near where they live, not having insurance at all, or realizing their plans do not cover mental health issues and not having adequate financial resources to pay for associated costs.
It doesn’t help that, according to some estimates, the national shortage of psychiatrists is as high as 20,000, a figure that increases the likelihood a person might have trouble finding a provider, especially in a rural area.
Telehealth for mental-related needs has hit the mainstream, allowing people to see mental health professionals from home. These options do not necessarily replace in-person visits, but they’re worthy alternatives for individuals who don’t have other choices. Many also accept the uninsured and offer flat rates for services to help people plan their budgets.
2. Technology could trigger behavior problems in young people
When individuals walk through areas populated by young people, they often see them staring down at screens, eagerly texting friends or using social media.
A Duke University study recruited young people who were at risk for mental health problems to investigate the effects technology use had on them.
Researchers concluded that when the subjects used technology more than usual — either by surpassing their habits or engaging with technology at rates that were higher, on average, than peers — they were more likely to exhibit behavioral problems like lying or getting into fights. They also had difficulty paying attention and showed signs of ADHD symptoms.
3. Technology allows for superior recordkeeping
Electronic health records (EHR) play substantial roles in allowing doctors and other providers to give the best possible care to mental health patients.
For example, full-text searches enable users to enter keywords and speedily sort through years of data to focus on specific details.
This could help caregivers gain insights into what kinds of medication to prescribe, how a person might respond to a particular type of treatment and whether an individual has ever exhibited dangerous behavior.
EHR also aids in curbing the opioid crisis and other kinds of addictions. People who struggle with substance abuse problems often go from doctor to doctor and facility to facility to attempt to get constant supplies of their drugs of choice.
However, those kinds of visits and the associated patient requests could get flagged in an EHR system, allowing providers to pinpoint potential addiction issues sooner than they otherwise might.
4. Technology may worsen self-esteem and depression
Social media allows people to stay in touch with loved ones and post updates about their lives. However, many users want to give the impression that their lives are going well, even if they aren’t.
So, they post pictures from their beach vacations or write status updates about getting promotions at work. All the while, some might be struggling with mental health troubles and not want to admit it.
Because social media can showcase an abnormally positive picture of people’s lives, it can cause low mood and the tendency to compare oneself to others.
A study of young adults in the U.S. found a “strong and significant association” between how depressed people felt and the time they spent on social media. Depressive feelings went up as social media use did.
Also, a separate investigation involving people aged 28-73 found that 60 percent of respondents reported social media use having a negative effect on self-esteem.
Skimming through a social media feed could cause FOMO (fear of missing out), making people especially lonely and feeling bad about themselves, particularly when it seems like all their friends have wonderful lives.
5. Technology might allow for more informed interventions
Mental health practitioners have tough jobs. Even when they get the benefit of face-to-face interactions with their patients, those meetings may only last for a half-hour or less. That means professionals have to evaluate as many characteristics as possible in short spans of time.
However, technology could make it easier to do that by providing compiled data that goes beyond patient appointments. Researchers came up with algorithms that analyzed Reddit posts and categorized them based on 11 mental-illness themes.
Thanks to deep learning and neural networks, the technology recognized mental illness-related posts with over 91 percent accuracy. The people involved in the study believe their advancement could aid in better moderator interventions, allowing individuals who are crying out for help to get the urgent assistance they need.
Then, that data might get passed on to health professionals with permission, giving them more accurate pictures of how patients feel outside of their appointments.
6. Technology could make it harder to identify isolation issues
Some mentally ill people cope with disorders that are so debilitating they become scared to leave their homes or interact with others in person. Then, it becomes harder for people they know to assess how they’re doing.
Plus, technology caters to people who dislike leaving their homes even for reasons not related to mental health. It’s possible to order groceries, get items from Amazon in a matter of hours, watch and listen to streaming content and refill prescriptions without ever setting foot outside.
There are positive aspects to those capabilities. However, they also arguably encourage people with mental health problems to not make efforts to interact with others. Moreover, the availability of online ordering may make it more difficult for friends to notice others’ absences.
In the past, people might say, “I used to see John buying fruit at the farmers market each Saturday, but he hasn’t been there in weeks,” potentially triggering them to check on that person. Now, they might just assume “I guess he found a more convenient way to buy produce” and not consider that the individual is unhealthily isolated from the world.
A balanced approach is necessary
This list demonstrates that technology has both positive and negative effects on mental health.
The key to avoiding problems is to strike a balance between using it and taking breaks.
Also, people should stay mindful of how they feel while using technology and cut back if they experience problems.