Using Technology for Mental Health Services: Good or Bad?

A man looking into his phone

Using Technology for Mental Health Services: Is It Good or Bad?

There is no doubt that technology has changed the way we interact with others and the world.

Since the development of mobile smartphones in the mid to early-2000’s, much has changed in the way we live. Mobile app companies have since become billion dollar businesses, disrupting traditional businesses like never before.

For example, take the case of Uber, Netflix, or Spotify. When was the last time you hailed a taxi or listened to music without an app?

The Effects of Increased Technology Use

Despite the convenience technology has afforded us, there has been consequences to increased screen time and mobile phone use.

Thomee (2018) reviewed the scientific literature of mobile phone use and mental health, to which results showed higher depressive scores, sleep problems or lower sleep quality, tiredness, lower well-being, anxiety, and stress.

But, the author asserts the need for more high quality research to draw a clear conclusion.

This is a fair assessment, considering that there has been a limited window of time from when technology first took over our lives. Research, on the other hand, takes time.

Technology Use for Mental Health Services

Can the use of technology improve mental health?

Over the years, there has been an uptick in provision of mental health services through the Internet.

This is an example of how technology can provide value in the mental health space.

For example, US-based apps Betterhelp and Talkspace offers video and asychronous messaging services by mental health professionals to their clients.

Since then, a variety of apps offer services encompassing different levels of care, such as self-management, skills training, or symptoms monitoring instead of full-on mental health consultations.

At present, both the technology providers and its customer base are still jockeying for a balanced position. That is, what kind or level of mental health service can be provided by technology, and what can’t?

Technology for Mental Health Services: The Advantages

The allure of mental health services done online or through technology comes from convenience and accessibility.

Most mental health services in Malaysia are within urban centres. On top of that, private mental health services (psychological or psychiatric) incur costs. But, the National Health Morbidity Survey 2015 found that those most affected by mental health issues are within the low income group.

As such, there is no question that leveraging technology can assist in mitigating the lack of reach for Malaysians to receive mental health services due to location and cost.

For example, a person can use mobile apps anywhere instead of travelling into into the city. Lowering level of care also results in lower costs. The mental health professional can reduce service fee through savings in overhead costs and time by offering services online and through non-live messaging instead.

Using technology is also beneficial as an introduction to mental healthcare, providing varying levels of support, providing anonymity (reduced stigma), and allowing reach to more people.

What About the Disadvantages?

On the other hand, the benefits of using technology has its downsides.

Measuring outcomes of interventions and services is part and parcel of objective reporting. Doing careful research can achieve this.

But, the nature of technology and for-profit ventures means that such an endeavor can prove to be challenging.

An evidence based to practice guides mental health professionals. While psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors have legislation and ethics to abide by, tech companies are able to differentiate their service and oversell claims of its benefits. Apps branded as coaching, self-help, or personal development platforms overrides the legislative requirements set upon mental health professionals.

This can lead to difficulties in improving mental health literacy among the community, and possibly misleading or denying people who would’ve otherwise opted for effective psychological or psychiatric interventions.

Legislation is also not catching up to the speed of technological innovation.

The only legislation that governs use of technology by medical professionals is the Telemedicine Act 1997. Much has since developed on the technological front for an act enacted in 1997 to govern the present.

Further to that, mental health professionals other than psychiatrists do not have any legislation to regulate their technology use.

In short, the use of technology for mental health is akin to opening a mystery box. While it does have its benefits, much of its consequences or governance is unknown.

Conclusion

Immediate disruption is the byproduct of technological innovation. However, good research is one that requires careful measurement and constant re-evaluated over time. Governance is also key to ensure quality and ethical provision of services.

But, as tech entrepreneurs, mental health professionals, and its customers jockey for a position to define the industry, one thing is for certain: the industry will continue to be fluid and evolving at all times.

In an increasingly disruptive world, speed in addressing a problem is crucial. But, this cannot happen at the expense of good science.

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