Technology in 2017: What impact does it have on mental health?Date: March 28, 2017
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.
Reinhardt, writing in a different piece published by Tame Your Practice, explained how the use of telemedicine platforms in mental health counseling has been shown to be beneficial in a number of ways. Perhaps most importantly, Reinhardt cited a study from researchers based at the University of Zurich, as detailed by Science Daily, which found that counseling conducted online actually can be more effective than face-to-face sessions. Researchers examined two groups of clients — one group received in-person therapy and the other received therapy via a telemedicine platform. Researchers found that the clients who received counseling sessions online actually experienced better outcomes — 53 percent reported that their depression had abated, compared to 50 percent reporting the same in the group that received in-person counseling. Other benefits include the fact that it is cheaper and allows a wider set of clients to be seen and treated, particularly those who are unable to access mental health services in person, whether due to geography, lack of funds or issues such as social anxiety disorder.
A point of clarification needs to be made, however. Whereas counselors may indeed use online technologies to aid the counseling process or to provide counseling services, they always must abide by the ethical guidelines on the use of technologies. These guidelines can be found in the Ethics Code of American Counseling Association and through the National Board for Certified Counselors’ website. Furthermore, counselors are required by law to be licensed in the locations where their clients reside.
Can technology have an adverse impact on mental health?
Although the use of technology can have a positive impact in terms of helping clients manage and get treated for certain mental health conditions, some research has indicated that the use of technology in general — and especially the internet — actually can be connected with the development of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression in some individuals. As Pantic noted, while more research is needed in this area, it is useful to take a closer look at what has been published on this topic so far:
As detailed by Dr. Romeo Vitelli, writing in an article published by Psychology Today, research has indicated that addiction to the internet, particularly among younger demographics such as adolescents, is becoming a notable issue. Vitelli explained that internet addiction disorder shares many similar features when compared with other forms of addiction, such as withdrawal symptoms when online access is precluded. While the internet can be an agent for good in terms of education and the strengthening of interpersonal relationships, internet addiction can be problematic because it can negatively impact academic success and one’s ability to communicate effectively in person. Vitalli noted that research also has observed a link between certain mental illnesses and internet addiction, including depression, low self-esteem, and loneliness.
The link between social media use and mental illness
In his literature review, Pantic explained how several studies have shown a link between depression and the use of social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Pantic is quick to caution that much more research is needed before the conclusions reached in the aforementioned studies are widely accepted as fact within the counseling community. Still, the findings are worth examining. Pantic reported on one study from 2013, which found that younger adults who frequently used the social networking site Facebook tended to report feeling less happy, with the use of the social platform possibly to blame. Pantic also reported on a study that he personally was involved with that found among high school students, rates of depression tended to be higher among those who regularly utilized social media sites.
Pantic proffered some possible reasons for the findings, explaining that social media sites, for some individuals, can trigger feelings of low self-esteem. For example, a social media site user may see other people on the site and assume those individuals are more successful, beautiful, intelligent and so on. Pantic explained that a study examining students at a Utah university found those who routinely used social media sites tended to feel as though their peers were more successful and happier than they were. Pantic noted that although these feelings are not necessarily linked to depression, there can be a relationship between them, particularly if the individuals in question already experience or are likely to experience mental health problems.
Dr. Saju Mathew was interviewed for an article by Piedmont Health, wherein he elaborated on this important point: “When we get on social media, we are looking for affirmation and consciously or not, we are comparing our life to the lives of others. As a result, we may not enjoy what’s in the moment.”
The impact of technology has extended into the realm of healthcare, and it is clear that technology also is making positive changes in terms of mental health care. Research has indicated, however, that the very tools that can help alleviate mental health issues, such as smartphone apps, may be linked with the experience of mental health problems in different contexts. As Pantic stressed, more research is needed before definitive conclusions are drawn. Still, for mental health counselors entering the field, a comprehensive understanding of the nuanced relationship between technology and mental health is necessary for effective practice. Counselors are compelled to expand their technological competencies but always in compliance with their respective ethical guidelines and the rule of law.
Consider Bradley University
If you are interested in pursuing a career as a mental health counselor, consider applying to Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling — Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. Designed with a busy schedule in mind, completion of the degree program will put you on a direct path to becoming licensed to practice. To learn more, click here.