Virtual Assistance

“Those crazy millennials, always glued to their smart phones and computers! Always needing wifi! Not appreciating talking to people in actual conversations! Where did we go wrong?”

Ah, have to love the sound of older generations’ critiques of how young people are choosing to live and take care of themselves. As if we are completely inadequate when forming genuine relationships just because social media is a go-to platform to do so.

Recently, I’ve been hearing more about different websites and mobile apps that not only connect you to other people who can truly empathize with you, but there’s also now therapy services strictly online. You could choose to just chat with someone (still qualified) as if in a messenger-type app if that’s what you prefer.

The first question that comes to mind when considering these new options is, are they actually effective? Are they the same thing as going in-person to a psychologist’s office or visiting a support group?

With the proliferation of recognizing mental illness comes a new need to treat it. This has exposed the drastic gap between those who do seek treatment, and those who cannot. Over half of the developed world and going-on ninety percent of people with mental illness are not receiving the treatment they need. As the system currently stands, this isn’t necessarily something you can fix overnight when there aren’t enough professionals to account for that many people, let alone have those people under health insurance plans that allow them to visit and afford treatment.

That’s where mobile apps and websites come in. They have the potential to act as a digital bridge to alleviate the gap, providing at least similar services to people who would otherwise receive nothing whatsoever. Isn’t something better than nothing? Yes, I would say so.

But not all apps are made equal. If you search “depression” or “mental health” into the App Store search engine, you’re going to stumble upon a lot of apps that are either garbage, or just a big scam for money. Technology is moving much faster than science, so a majority of the apps you’ll see aren’t extensively studied in their effectiveness. Some could even be harmful. If people aren’t looking into what they’re downloading, then down the rabbit hole they’ll fall.

As a general suggestion, I would say to not rely on a free app for mental health treatment entirely. I would say the same thing for any form of treatment: if you can diversify your toolbox, you’ll be better prepared for whatever may arise.

The fact you could receive a form of relief in such a convenient, flexible medium demonstrates how far we’ve come in treating mental health at all. You can be connected to professionals, talk directly to them, or go solo by tracking your moods and practicing mindfulness.

Admittedly, I’ve used apps in the past to help me in therapy. When strictly focusing on my eating disorder, I was using the Rise Up + Recover app to input my food and whatever else at the time I was tracking to keep myself accountable. I’ve tried the trial run of meditation apps like Headspace to introduce myself to mindfulness in an accessible way. I recently downloaded Huddle just for kicks since it promotes itself as a safe space to form support groups with others and be extremely honest yet selectively private as you so choose.

There are also websites/apps like BetterHelp that are essentially therapy sessions you can conduct through text, audio, or video chat. You’re paying for actual healthcare services with actual counselors. Compared to the normal scenario, you’re saving money, except it’d be even better if insurance companies got on board with covering new unconventional platforms (and, let’s face it, general mental health care).

You have to evaluate yourself on if this would be beneficial or not. When it’s online and on smartphones, that brings about the negative side effects that come with addiction and overuse. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable dappling into something new, especially in an area that currently lacks research and evidence, and that’s okay, too.

I see this as the future, and we’re eventually all going in this direction. Heck, even for normal health services, never did I think I’d have an app allowing me to send messages to my doctor and read lab results right there. We’re at the forefront where there is still great ambiguity and unregulated progress.

There’s always going to be the pros and cons present, but the possibilities at this point are hopeful and exciting. As someone who rarely uses counseling services due to insurance coverage, lack of flexible treatment, and general lackluster results, this could be the start of something very helpful for many people.

What are your thoughts on online/mobile mental health apps? Are they more of a harm or a help?

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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