Upon completion of a Master of Arts in Counseling degree, individuals can choose to work as mental health counselors — individuals who help clients living with varying mental health and/or interpersonal issues. For example, a mental health counselor may meet with a bereaved woman in the morning who recently has lost her husband, and then a young man in his 20s in the afternoon who is living with an anxiety disorder. The role is challenging and rewarding, and necessitates understanding and expertise for a whole spectrum of mental health concerns.
Given the ubiquity of technology in daily life — particularly the internet and internet-based platforms such as social media sites and smartphone apps — mental health counselors working today likely will encounter clients who are experiencing issues that may be directly or indirectly linked to the use of digital media. According to Dr. Igor Pantic, writing in the literature review “Online Social Networking and Mental Health,” published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there is little doubt that the internet and social media platforms such as Facebook have had a notable impact on the way that individuals communicate.
Pantic further explained that a number of recent studies have observed a link between social media use and certain mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Pantic is quick to assert, however, that the studies are by no means conclusive and that endeavors to understand the relationship between mental health and technology remain in their infancy.
Still, it is useful for mental health counselors to have an understanding of the research and insights into technology’s impact on mental health, which extends to the positive impacts, as well. After all, drawbacks aside, technology continues to improve many aspects of daily life for the better, and the arena of mental health is no exception: there are a number of observable areas in which the development of technology has helped clients take charge of their mental health care in a positive way.
Technology: A force for good?
Despite progress in terms of mental health awareness, journalist Conor Farrington, writing for the Guardian, explained how mental health care still receives a notable lack of funding from international governments. For example, Farrington reported that the per capita expenses on mental health care in industrialized nations such as the U.S. and U.K. amounts to just over $33, which equates to a little under £33. The amount is considerably less in developing countries. Consequently, Farrington argued that technology holds promise as a vehicle for improving access to mental health care, particularly in nations where such services are elementary at best.
Technology is improving mental health care in a number of ways, Lena H. Sun explained, writing for the Los Angeles Times, and it is primarily through platforms such as apps based on smartphones and computers that can help provide services and information to clients in a more cost-effective way. For example, Sun explained how there are now, in addition to smartphone apps that promote mental wellness, certain platforms available that allow patients to complete courses of cognitive behavioral therapy online. In her article, Sun profiled a British-based service known as the Big White Wall, which has been endorsed by the U.K.’s government-funded National Health Service. Big White Wall is an online platform that enables users living with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression to manage their symptoms from home via tools such as educational resources, online conversations and virtual classes on issues of mental health. The efficacy of Big White Wall is conspicuous — Sun reported on a 2009 study that found that a vast majority of the service’s users —some 95 percent —noted an improvement in their symptoms.
How can counselors harness technology?
Mental health counselors can play an important role in facilitating access to services such as Big White Wall and also can help promote smartphone apps and other online services that can be used to help improve general mental health. Technology can be used alongside in-person counseling, as opposed to being employed as a substitution. Counselors even may find that digital platforms allow the development of deeper working relationships with clients, particularly younger clients who are used to utilizing technology on a daily basis. Bethany Bay, writing in an article for Counseling Today, interviewed Sarah Spiegelhoff, a counselor from Syracuse, N.Y., who elaborated on this important point:
“I find technology resources to be great tools to supplement traditional counseling services, as well as a way for counselors to reach larger populations than we typically serve on an individual basis […] I find that college students are quicker to check Facebook and Twitter statuses than their email, so using social media has been one way for us to promote and distribute information on healthy living and outreach events […] I also share information related to new apps that promote wellness both through our social media accounts and directly in counseling sessions. For example, during alcohol awareness programming, we encouraged students to download free blood alcohol calculator apps. We also offer free mindfulness meditation MP3s through iTunes. I find the MP3s to be a great resource because I am able to present them to clients in session, talk about their experiences listening to and practicing the meditations and then develop a treatment plan that includes their use of the meditations outside of the counseling sessions.”
Counselors also can use platforms to connect with clients who may be situated in underserved or rural areas and are unable to travel for in-person meetings. As Farrington explained, some studies, including one from Oxford University, have found that text messaging and phone calls can be effective ways for counselors to connect with clients. Furthermore, telehealth platforms, which include instant messaging or video calling, already are proving useful in primary care settings for helping counselors reach clients. For example, Rob Reinhardt, writing for Counseling Today, interviewed Tasha Holland-Kornegay, a counseling professional who primarily provides counseling services to clients living with HIV via a messaging platform, which incorporates the option for video and audio calls.