Digital technology for mental health

How apps and technology can be harnessed to help improve our mental health and wellbeing

Written by Bridianne O'Dea

The Black Dog Institute is a not-for-profit organisation focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.

To further explore how online and social media tools can provide mental health solutions, the Institute launched its Digital Dog research program earlier this year. Along with releasing its own app, Snapshot, the program explores how to harness technology to prevent mental health problems in schools and educate the public on the effectiveness of e-health measures.

Here, post-doctoral researcher Bridianne O’Dea describes how social media and digital technology can be both helpful and harmful to mental health and how the program’s online tools can assist.

What role can social media and mobile apps play when it comes to mental health?

Social media is a popular way for people to communicate. Using social media, individuals can share their own thoughts, ideas and behaviours, while also being exposed to the thoughts, ideas and behaviours of others. This online interactivity expands our social networks and may influence our mental health in ways previously not thought of.

Emerging research indicates our online activity via social media may have both positive and negative impacts. For example, recent Facebook research has shown that the emotional content or ‘mood’ of Facebook posts can impact others following those posts. More research is needed to better understand the relationship between social media and mental health.

Mobile apps for mental health is a burgeoning area of technology. There are a vast number of mobile apps targeting various mental health problems, with anecdotal support for their usefulness. However, currently to date, the majority of apps available lack scientific evidence about efficacy, so we cannot state with certainty that all apps targeting mental health problems like depression, anxiety, bipolar and suicide are helpful and not harmful.

How do mobile apps like the Black Dog Institute’s Snapshot benefit those with mental health issues?

The Black Dog Snapshot is a free, confidential, password protected mobile app that is a handy screener for mental health. Rather than give treatment, the Snapshot aims to increase an individual’s awareness of their mental health and wellbeing, and assist them in taking the first steps to seek help, if appropriate. It asks a number of standardised questions and gives you feedback based on Australian population norms for your age and gender. It also has a useful list of resources, both online and face-to-face, that offer professional help and support.

Who is Snapshot targeting, and how do you think those reluctant to acknowledge symptoms of poor mental health will respond on a digital platform?

The Black Dog Snapshot is an app for all Australian adults aged 18 and over. It is available from both Android and Apple app stores. It is ideal for any individual who would like to get a simple overview of how they are doing. The app is able to track mental wellbeing over time so is helpful for anyone wishing to get greater insight into their health. The Snapshot is non-judgmental, easy to use, and right there in your pocket. It is a gentle way of examining your mental health and appropriate for anyone who is currently feeling reluctant to engage with the more formal ways of mental health assessment.

Why do you think digital media has so much potential?

Meaningful human interaction, forming connections and bonds with others, is crucial for protecting not only our mental health, but our quality of life. I have witnessed the importance of family, friends, work mates and communities in keeping people mentally healthy and feel that the internet can be supportive of this. Internet technology has extended our opportunities to engage, learn, support and strengthen others, significantly increasing our own potential to build healthy and happy lives.

Growing up in a rural area, I have seen the challenges people face when trying to access high quality mental health care. The internet has significantly expanded our ability to reach those people who remain unconnected by traditional services and platforms of mental health care. The next 10 years is an extremely exciting time for mental health research as we truly begin to explore the intricate connections between our social interaction, behaviour and mental health, while harnessing the endless opportunities that technology presents to us.

To learn more about the program, head to digitaldog.org.au

If you need help, please call the beyondblue Support Service on 1300 22 4636 or email or chat online at beyondblue.org.au

Written by Bridianne O'Dea

Dr Bridianne O’Dea completed her PhD in Health Sciences at the University of Sydney in 2012 after completing an honours degree in e-mental health. She is now completing post-doctoral training at the Black Dog Institute.

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