The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously gobbled up the majority of news coverage across the globe over the last year. It has also, clearly, been the focus of attention of governments. Lockdowns, restrictions, social distancing, treatment, testing, and vaccination have been the priorities of government and media, and that’s not likely to change soon.
However, more and more we see evidence that one of the biggest stories of the pandemic – and one likely to remain long after it is gone – is the impact on mental health. Isolation has always been known as one of the most significant contributors to mental illness, and now that isolation has been enforced on many people by law.
But the pandemic has also acted to shine a light on where mental health is today. Below we wanted to look at that from a perspective of technology, asking how it has changed perceptions and solutions. Starting with dual aspects from one of the most all-encompassing areas – social media – here are four ways that tech has changed, and is changing, our approach to mental health.
Social Media – Negative
We wanted to start with social media, breaking it into two sections due to its hugely significant impact on mental health. It’s long been assumed that too much social media is bad for mental health. Indeed, it often falls into a paradoxical category of leading to feelings of isolation when it claims to keep us better connected.
Social media, of course, isn’t inherently bad. Saying as such is like saying the Pacific Ocean is bad because you can drown in it. It is not social media itself, but how you experience it that is the problem.
From “doomscrolling”, i.e., the process of scanning social media for news for stories to get upset about, to bullying from teenagers, there is a plethora of issues that can lead to a negative experience. It is, of course, highly addictive too. Ask yourself if you have ever been on Twitter or
Facebook on a laptop, closed the tab and absent-mindedly opened it again on a smartphone seconds later. It’s been estimated that 5-10% of Americans meet the criteria for social media addiction. Much of this fast-paced hyperconnectivity has yet to be fully analyzed by experts, but all agree that the impact on our mental health is worrying.
Social Media – Positive
Social media gets a bad rap (see above). And, most scholarly articles look at the negative side on our mental health. But many of those negatives can be viewed as positives.
We mentioned the paradox of connectivity above, but it is true that being able to connect with others can have a hugely positive effect. Consider what the pandemic would have been like if we were not able to reach out to, say, a self-isolating elderly relative over Facetime or WhatsApp?
Social media has also acted in another way – talking about mental health itself and ending stigmas attached to it. We tend to be somewhat scornful when celebrities post about their experiences, but these can resonate with social media users. Carrie Fisher was one such advocate, with the late Star Wars actress using social media as a platform to campaign to end the stigma around mental health.
Access to Mental Health Services
Online therapy, sometimes called cybertherapy, was a growing industry before the pandemic, but the outbreak of Covid-19 really highlighted its importance, and it will likely act as a catalyst for the future.
The idea of ‘teletherapy’ has been around for nearly as long as we have had telephones, but you can see with this Healthsapiens review just how sophisticated the industry has become. The idea that professional mental health services can be accessed everywhere and at any time should soon become as engrained as hailing an Uber.
Outside of North America and Europe, there is a more logistical emphasis on the roll-out of cybertherapy services. Nigeria, for example, is a country of over 200 million people, and where one in four Nigerians suffer from a mental health issue.
There are an estimated 250 psychiatrists in the country. Cybertherapy does not have to mean face to face time with a psychiatrist only – Nigeria has a mammoth task even if it were to fully adapt online therapy – it can offer many other mechanisms to help.
We want to apply a caveat here: The use of Big Data to treat, prevent and categorize mental health is in its infancy and far behind physical diseases like cancer.
Indeed, if you look to some of the world’s leading bodies, most of the studies are incomplete are marked as “ongoing”. Nevertheless, positive outcomes are happening, even if the challenges are great. One such body that is doing incredible work is the Alan Turing Institute, which has an ongoing study looking to use data analysis to treat and prevent several types of mental illness.
But, once again, there are issues with using big data. We know, for example, that mental health is often idiosyncratic, and a cause or treatment that works for one individual would not necessarily work for another. Moreover, algorithms developed to map mental health would also have to adapt to fast-changing forces that impact our mental health: the pandemic, for example.
Still, there is evidence that Big Data analysis is working to improve interventions. Part of this is due to the data collected through social media. Even though social media is famed for allowing us to give a false impression of ourselves, scientists can use it to model our behaviors and personality traits with a great degree of accuracy. Still, we are at the tip of the iceberg stage.
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