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


The Drop Off

I must say, not having the constant stress of some sort of assignment due and group project to coordinate and everything else pressing upon my shoulders. Especially as many people face or have just finished a week of final tests and papers, it feels like you’re breathing, actually taking in a lungful of air, for the first time in months.

But that doesn’t mean I automatically can flip a switch and feel content going into my winter break. I’m still in the mindset that I have something due and I’ve just forgotten about it. Maybe I should double-check…

On paper, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to go from finals week straight to a month-long break with virtually no cares in the world. There shouldn’t be any negatives at all about getting a well-deserved time of rest and relaxation, right?

For me, despite fully knowing I need this break after the crazy semester I just finished, that doesn’t make the swift change much easier. In my mind, going from constant schoolwork and responsibilities to essentially nothing is an abrupt change to handle. In fact, it can even pull me into my depressive moods to avoid feeling overwhelmed to a new, stress-free schedule.

As much as I probably complain about the immense stress I consciously put myself under, I do so because I need some sort of routine, something to work on to feel like I accomplish something and don’t waste away my moments. You might think I’m crazy for still consistently posting five days a week, but I honestly can’t picture myself doing any less. I have a restless mind, and when I know my depression is at the reins and I have zero energy and motivation, I immediately begin anxious mental scurrying, thoughts about being inadequate and lazy racing through my head.

So even in a time that is specifically dedicated to having free time, I feel like I’m not “spending my time correctly.” That I should be doing more or better somehow. That I’m missing out on opportunities and experiences others are taking advantage of, ensuring that I “fall behind.” The logic behind this thinking doesn’t stand, but that doesn’t mean it ever stops.

The end of the semester directly into winter break, as the title implies, feels like a drop off a cliff, going from one mental extreme to the next. It’s a weird sensation. You second-guess yourself. Should I enjoy this, and uh, how do I do that? I bet you can safely guess how I feel about the several months of summer vacation. (Spoiler alert: I’m sick of it by mid-June.)

Knowing myself and this inevitable cycle I face, I’ve found certain things to help me that can hopefully encourage others who have similar anxieties and exhaustion. As you can see by this post, I am still full-swing on my blog since now I have even more time to devote to writing and putting out some quality content for you folks. I also have my senior thesis project to work on that I’d actually like to completely finish over the break. Again, ambitious, if you can see the trend in my goals, but I’d really enjoy if I could get it out of the way when I don’t have other classwork to think about.

I also should be thinking ahead to summer and my plans for the waiting period between graduation and the real world, at least in the American Samoa. Again, since I know that summer is just a longer version of this empty-scheduled time, I want to make sure I’m preparing for then to avoid a drastic drop-off feeling.

My two biggest tips, then? Both involve planning ahead. First, for this present moment, ask yourself if you have any bigger projects or hobbies you’d like to dabble in that you usually don’t have the chance to do. If you do have any ongoing tasks at hand, whether that’s blogging, working, or anything else, look forward to that consistency and keep it up even if other aspects of your days are freer.

Also plan ahead for the future if possible. As a student, that usually involves looking for summer work and activities, but really, it’s always great to set goals and see what smaller hoops you’ll need to jump through to accomplish those. Having some sort of thing to strive for keeps you accountable and should give you the opportunity to check off an item on a list, by far one of the most satisfying feelings out there.

Some bonus advice would be to keep some sense of a routine in your days. Wake up at the same time every day, have set times for certain activities and meals, and make sure you stick to those. Depression and mental illness in general can feel like an endless fog, but having those little tasks to do again make you feel accomplished, like you did something with your day, even if that was just waking up early or taking a shower.

I’ve been talking up a lot of negatives about the holidays, but honestly, I LOVE the holidays. I’m pumped to be back with my family for a month and spend time just enjoying this time of year. What are you looking forward to this holiday season?

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Season of SAD


‘Tis the season to be jolly…for most of us. For others, this time of year can bring about debilitating emotions that are not so merry and bright.

How frustrating to feel the holiday season immerse the world in dazzling lights, in hopeful messages, in catchy melodies, in warm fires and beverages shared with loved ones…but not feel joy from it. To feel disconnected when society comes together for a common purpose once a year. To feel unmotivated and uninspired to share gifts with others when a gift would be simply getting through the day.

The condition is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and its effects should not be taken lightly. It might be easy to simply brush off low moods as the “winter blues,” but these feelings are valid and should be treated accordingly.

Colored lights strung from shutters and trees. Bright array of commercials for every event and sale piling upon each other leading up to Christmas. Red hats with the traditional white fur trimming their brims. Metallic golds and silvers splayed upon evergreen branches in tinsel garlands. An entire spectrum of color, and yet December can seem simply dull. The weather is either a desolute sea of brown grass and bare branches, or a thick layer of white frost, ice and snow covering every surface. The “blue” of SAD is a much greyer hue.

SAD is a type of depression brought on by changing seasons, most commonly during the change of autumn into winter. The symptoms associated with SAD also tend to become increasingly severe as the months wear on. Up to 5 percent of the population (especially in northern states) may suffer from it. Women are four times more likely than men to develop SAD, and it’s more common among younger people, ages 20 to 50, with a general decrease in symptoms as life progresses.

At least the holidays break up a string of cold, dreary that otherwise feel like an endless wandering through the tundra with no warmth or refuge in sight. Once December 26 hits, the magic wrapping the depression in colorful paper is ripped from the package and thrown away, exposing the internal nature that comes from an overly muted external nature.

As a type of depression, it’s still as detrimental to overall wellness as any other depression diagnosis. That means the symptoms of SAD are the same of those of major depressive disorder, or MDD: feeling depressed most of the day nearly every day, losing interest in once enjoyable activities, having low energy, having problems with sleeping, experiencing changes in appetite or weight, feeling sluggish or agitated, having difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty, and potentially having thoughts of death or suicide.

“It’s the holidays, you’re fine!”

“You just need to get in the holiday spirit!”

“You’re being a Grinch! A Scrooge! It’s the best time of the year, you should be happy!”

The specific causes of SAD are still pretty vague, but the change of seasons and all that it brings tend to throw people off. The reduced sunlight in fall and winter tend to throw off the circadian rhythm of sleep and wakefulness, simultaneously skewing the brain’s levels of serotonin and melatonin. Each of these neurotransmitters play major roles in mood and sleep patterns.

With its tendency to ebb and flow as the seasons change, the stigma surrounding SAD is perpetuating by a disbelief that symptoms can come and go as they do, assuming them to be less severe they probably are. Especially since SAD is a mental illness, people can too easily brush it aside and move forward with the holiday festivities as planned. However, regardless of the joy and good will promoted this time of year, no number of decorations and carols can mask the real, present emotions lurking under the surface.

There’s so much to celebrate, so why put a damper on anything? Well, to fulfill the definition behind “good will toward men,” a helping hand for those struggling to keep up with the holiday noise and bustle can be the most festive thing to do. Everyone deserves the opportunity to a wonderful holiday season, but some need more support than others. Let’s not leave them behind to get sucked into the holiday bustle and noise.

Just as people with the flu or breast cancer can’t switch off their symptoms, people with SAD can’t simply decide to turn off their disorder. SAD is a grave mental disorder and can severely hinder the ability to function and perform normal activities. People with SAD often withdraw from their friends and struggle to complete simple tasks, let alone manage the stress and busier schedules that arise this time of year.

Treatment approaches to alleviate the symptoms of SAD typically include combinations of antidepressant medication, light therapy, Vitamin D, and counseling. As a means of self-care for those who may be prone to SAD, it’s best monitor mood and energy levels, take advantage of available sunlight, pan pleasurable activities for the winter season, and when symptoms develop, seek help sooner rather than later.

It’s typical to give gifts wrapped in boxes and bows, but the best gift to give is a simple reminder to struggling loved ones to say, “I’m here for you. Your feelings are valid. You are not alone.” Those affected by SAD are probably already frustrated by the obvious hypocrisy of feeling the lowest when the world promotes the highest moods and general elation.

That’s where empathy and awareness come in. Perhaps the season isn’t the most merry, but hopefully it’s at least manageable when surrounded with supportive people and resources as well as the gifts already present in life that make it worth living.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie