Solving a Mental Health Dilemma: Can Technology Help With Managing Mental Health Problems?

Vitalijus Majorovas, co-founder of Pulsetto

The rise in daily technology use has created another dimension through which mental health has to struggle. Studies already show the link between excessive smartphone use and anxiety, ADHD, depression, excessive alcohol use, and PTSD. Vitalijus Majorovas, co-founder of Pulsetto analyses whether technology can also be used to help solve mental health problems.

The pandemic saw an exponential rise in the use of technology. It was the only outlet for interaction both during and after working hours. Additionally, during the pandemic, children went to school online. These “new normals” limited peer-to-peer interactions and gave rise to new forms of isolation.  There is no future without the use of technology and, to move forward, we need to work on solutions that leverage technology to solve existing and new mental health concerns.

 Impact of technology on mental health

The constant use of technological devices has created a range of physical issue.  Poor posture, a rise in carpal tunnel syndrome, and back pain are all symptons of the increasing use of technology. Additionally, endless scrolling on bright screens can cause eye strain. And while solutions such as ergonomic devices were created to deal with these physical constraints, mental health concerns did not receive a similar level of attention and the introduction of workable solutions.

The length of time it takes to observe a shift from a balanced state of mental health partly explains the problem. Adults are likely to experience increased isolation following continual scrolling through social media. This may seem counterintuitive since social media was built to bring people together. However, the inability to monitor screen time and the impact of online interactions can be a source of concern.

“Negative interactions online can often lead to anxiety and depression. These interactions are frequently anonymous and, sadly, can continue unchecked for a significant time. All of that can lead to other mental health concerns such as chronic stress and low self-esteem,” says psychotherapist Dainius Jakucionis.

Technological overuse has also negatively impacted the mental health of children and adolescents. A Covid-19 pandemic study with 217 child participants observed that almost 36.9% used digital devices for over five hours a day, compared to a pre-pandemic 1.8%.

Another review observed an increase in inattention, poor sleep quality, influence on language development, and social struggles as a negative impact among children who frequently used digital technology.

While a lot of these studies highlight the negative impacts from the use of technology, solutions also can be found, such as improving interactions and developing usable tech products for the mental health ecosystem.

How technology can work as a solution for mental health

A key concern to mental well-being is always being connected to a digital device. For work, tracking health, and connecting with peers, devices have shortened the time to the next update. At the same time, however, devices have limited the disconnect required for one’s mental health. Early reviews on the use of mental health apps for symptoms of depression and anxiety hold promise for modestly reducing psychological symptoms.

Several other benefits of technology have been noted to fill the gaps in mental well-being. One such advantage is tackling the geographical limitations that physical counseling requires. With technology, counselors can reach more people needing help with mental health issues.

Additionally, online portals allow for anonymity, which enables more open conversation. Outside of one-on-one sessions, individuals can have access to chat-based forums often available 24/7. Humanizing these interactions is vital in helping improve the user experience.

Technology aiming to use simple UI can assist with reducing overall cognitive load. Ways to develop this includes increasing the use of images, inclusive language, and reducing clinical jargon. An essential feature of technological apps is their ability to continually self-monitor, which proves useful for those who may have intrusive thoughts, something often observed with depression or substance abuse.

How technology is currently solving the dilemma

The mental health app market is estimated to cross US$3.3bn globally by 2027. The pandemic alone has resulted in a US$3.1bn investment into the digital mental health space.

This makes it crucial to innovate for the surging prevalence of mental health concerns across the globe.

Apps are currently being built to have direct communication with mental health professionals. Several tech products provide guided techniques, such as meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy, such as Sensa, a mental health assistant. It provides guided meditations, breathing exercises, and calming techniques that use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tools to navigate through anxiety, social phobias, worry, and other mental health issues. However, effectively solving some mental health issues might require additional tools, such as stimulating the vagus nerve, which is responsible for our body’s relaxation.

Vagus nerve stimulation has been used in medical practice since 1988. At first, it was an invasive procedure, but now, the same results can be achieved without surgery. Pulsetto has created a wearable device that works by stimulating the vagus nerve externally. Users can then use the device to manage stress, improve sleep quality, or navigate through anxiety.

The future of mental health technology

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 31% of the population struggles with anxiety and depression. Technological apps and products can solve a global mental health crisis – there is currently a worldwide shortage of mental health professionals. Technology can help bridge the gaps.

More collaborative efforts are required to address the pitfalls of technology – overuse, bullying, isolation, and other mental health triggers. Enlightening users as to the potential benefits and suitability of applications is also key to increased tech usage. Technology is the future that can facilitate healthier mental health ecosystems.