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This app is providing digital therapy to fight depression

app provides digital therapy to fight depression
app provides digital therapy to fight depression

The biggest problem with our addiction to smart devices is that we cannot avoid using them. One consequence of that is that our ability to pay attention, connect with others and remember things is decreasing as the amount of time we spend online increases, says Professor Saki Santorelli, former head of the University of Massachusetts’s Center for Mindfulness

He told the 2018 World Government Summit in Dubai that the digital age is presenting the human race with three big challenges, which he calls: dis-attention, dis-connection and forgetfulness.

His opinion coincides with those of others who say too much time on social media or computer games is detrimental to our brains.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, told the Summit; “The early evidence is that heavy use of social media is driving us a little crazy…young people who are online long hours are experiencing depression and more mental burdens because of this.”

But while the risks of social disconnection may be real, social media could also find a way to solve some of the problems it has been accused of creating among groups who can otherwise be hard to reach.

Training for the brain

The Happify app is one example of how digital games and activities might help to reduce stress and anxiety. The app already has over 3.5 million users and claims to help people with schizophrenia, clinical depression and chronic illnesses.

Happify uses neuroplasticity – the theory that you can change and modify the brain by training it like a muscle. It helps its users to overcome negative thought patterns and learn to cope with everyday stresses by adopting new thinking habits.

The app gives people a few simple games or brain exercises every day, such as listing things to be grateful for, savouring everyday experiences or being kind to others.

These exercises could ultimately lead people into more positive thought patterns, says Happify’s chief scientist Acacia Parks, an assistant professor of psychology at Hiram College in the US.

These exercises can be individualized and tailored towards specific goals, such as bonding with children or increasing workplace confidence.

Breaking the stigma

But positive-thinking apps and programs face some big challenges. First of these is how to get attention when there is an ever-present temptation to switch to other digital distractions, from Netflix to Facebook

Additionally, many may still be uneasy with the idea of turning to a mobile phone or tablet to counter depression or anxiety.

Happify adds a social network into the equation, providing a forum for people to share their successes and spur each other on.

But while social networking is often blamed for the breakdown of meaningful relationships, it can also be instrumental in overcoming taboos.

The success of the #MeToo campaign in getting people to reveal painful realities that had been hidden for years provides an example of this.

Similarly, online forums and social networks might help break down the stigma surrounding mental health problems and provide a safe place for people to share experiences. Indeed,  among the main treatments for treating depression, aside from taking anti-depressants, are the so-called “talking therapies”.

Eliminating the human touch

But Professor Parks says for those worried about discussing their difficulties with others, talking to real people is not essential.

“We are able to eliminate the human feature, you don’t have to talk to a person in real terms ever,” she says. “There’s a pretty good amount of research which suggests that reduces efficacy less than you would think.”

The idea that humans are not a necessary part of therapy is supported by scientific bodies, including the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which provides guidance on improving healthcare.

It has approved the use of online cognitive behavioural therapy – a well-established talking therapy – as scientists recognize it is sometimes easier for people to open up to a machine rather than a person.

The effective and long-term treatment of mental health illnesses can be expensive and time-consuming as it requires the intervention of qualified therapists.

And, as our societies grow, the increasing costs of wellbeing and health make it difficult for everyone to have receive such personalized, individual attention. 

So perhaps it is time for governments and policy makers to consider whether digital tools can assist with mental health issues. As the writer Deepak Chopra points out, technology is neither good nor bad – it is just a question of how we choose to use it.