Digital Mental Health in the Era of Techlash: Towards Humane Health Technology

Note to readers: This is a long-ish read (closer to 15 rather than 5 minutes)

As someone who studies mental health, I rarely stop to ask myself about its definition. Yet, definition is increasingly at the front of my mind when I think about the field of digital mental health.

I know all the modern textbook definitions, but find myself drawn to a definition that was put forward over 60 years ago by Erich Fromm in his book The Sane Society. One of the founders of what would come to be known as Humanistic Psychology, Fromm wrote “Mental health is characterized by the ability to love and to create, ….by a sense of identity based on one’s experience of self as the subject and agent of one’s powers, [and] by the grasp of reality inside and outside of ourselves, that is, by the development of objectivity and reason.”

I love this definition because of its focus on what seems to me to really make us human: loving, creating, and having a desire for knowledge. The field of digital mental health is moving forward at a breakneck speed without considering the basic question of how it might promote – or disrupt – these building blocks of a sane and humane society and of our individual mental health within it. Moreover, it is developing in a world of obsessive social media use, mobile phone addiction, fake news, digital data insecurity, internet trolls, and the Uber-fication of human service industries, all of which serve a single, primary objective of absolute efficiency – getting what we want as quickly and easily as possible at all times.

Here I highlight key challenges we face in creating humane and effective health technology in a toxic digital ecosystem, lay out a four-point road map, and, as a case study, describe the development of a micro-intervention app for stress- and anxiety-reduction I developed called Personal Zen.

The Promise of Digital Mental Health

The potential payoffs of digital mental health are of crucial importance now. We are facing an ever-growing mental health epidemic in the US and around the world. Over half of us will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder in our lifetime. And our kids are struggling. Approximately one in every 4–5 youth in the U.S. meets criteria for a mental disorder with severe impairment, and the vast majority of mental health disorders in adults first emerge in childhood and adolescence.

The particular promise of computerized and mobile interventions are that they can, if done properly, radically increase the availability and accessibility of empirically-validated treatments, while reducing cost and stigma.

The Toxic Digital Ecosystem and Techlash

We’re used to believing, with true tech-enthusiasm, that if only we can “disrupt” current healthcare delivery systems, we can solve all our problems. But we now realize with growing certainty that what the digital ecosystem truly excels at is making money for technology companies and pushing us towards ever-greater efficiency. It does this so well because it is precisely and purposefully designed to grab our attention, addict us, and keep us glued to our screens: This is the basis of the attention and surveillance economies. The result of this design focus is that digital technology exhausts us, distracts us, and detracts from our ability to do other things.

Awareness of this has caused the pendulum to swing the other way, and we’ve entered an era of “tech-lash” with growing outcry about mobile phone addiction, negative effects of social media on youth mental health, data security, the spread of fake news, unethical business practices, and the list goes on. We are angry at Silicon Valley because these powerful companies created ubiquitous products and put profit so far above our well-being, that it’s unclear what to do about it.

Such is the degree of techlash now that even scientists are seeing causation in correlation before solid facts are established. In 2017, researchers, usually a circumspect bunch, went so far as to suggest in the popular media that smartphones have psychologically destroyed a generation of youth, citing among other findings that during the period following the birth of the iPhone about 10 years ago, we have seen a doubling of suicide rates and increases in depression and anxiety across vast segments of society.

In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at experiences related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent. These are alarming statistics, but is this enough evidence that smartphones are causing these problems?

I believe not. I have come to doubt conventional wisdom that smartphones or social media are a unique cause of anxiety, depression, or suicide; instead, I see them as a factor among many. By primarily “blaming the machines” we obscure the impact of other factors of equal or perhaps greater importance, and lose opportunities to deeply examine a range of factors and how they might work together with digital technology to contribute to the suffering of youth and adults.

As the evidence comes in, how do we work in an arguably toxic digital ecosystem to ensure that – for adults and children – health technology heals rather than harms?

A Four-Point Road Map for Humane Digital Mental Health Technology

For health technology to be truly humane, it must meet these four criteria:

  1. Prioritize development of micro-interventions. An irony of digital mental health is that the well-honed attention economy techniques that keep people glued to screens will work against mental health promotion. Therefore, focus should be on creating micro-interventions that require as little screen time as possible. Micro-interventions are brief and frequent, easily fitting into a person’s routine at home or on-the-go. They are part of the broader spectrum of care, with low-intensity preventative or “gateway” treatments at one end and intensive stand-alone treatments on the other end. Development efforts in health technology should be focused now on the low-intensity end of the spectrum. Later, once a strong evidence base is built, resources should then be devoted across the spectrum to develop more intensive, resource-heavy and stand-alone treatments. Spectrum of careThis strategy is largely reversed in digital healthcare right now. Many companies are trying to digitize gold-standard treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which remains time-consuming and expensive. Moreover, it remains unclear whether CBT is effective in digital or telemedicine format. Making poorly-validated treatments widely available does not solve the mental healthcare crisis.

 

  1. Maximize high accessibility. Along with the development of brief, micro-interventions, digital mental health must be qualitatively more accessible than current treatment delivery systems – affordable, easy to access, used on-the-go, and engaging. Current psychological treatments are often time-consuming and expensive. Of the over 160 million Americans who will have mental health problems in their lifetime, 50% of us don’t seek any treatment with 44% of these untreated patients citing price as a barrier. Basic access is also highly limited – over 83 million Americans live in federally-designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas.

 

  1. Reduce stigma. The stigma of mental illness represents a significant barrier to mental healthcare access. Of the tens of millions of untreated Americans struggling with mental health, 10% cite the stigma of mental illness – and fearing others will find out – as a primary barrier. A benefit of digital and mobile mental health interventions is that when we access mental wellness tools on our devices, they become part of our enjoyable and daily digital lives, increasing the possibility of normalization. Developers can also aim to create interventions that are fun and engaging, rather than having the clinical and medical feel that might turn people away from seeking help in the first place.

 

  1. Make adaptive and personalized. The promise of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data for solving health problems are immense. The most sophisticated techniques for data generation and gathering have been used in the worlds of advertising and politics, but these emerging techniques have already made waves in terms of medical diagnosis and risk assessment. In mental health, the ability to dynamically evaluate a treatment target and personalize interventions accordingly are the future of mental healthcare. At this stage, few research-based mental health tools have built-in adaptive methods. This is among the most important areas in which academia and industry must come together, one that holds perhaps the greatest promise for true personalization of treatment.

Summary: Development of humane and effective digital mental health technology must optimize the accessibility and mobility of digital technology, shift focus towards brief, flexible, and personalized interventions, and reduce screen time in order to step off the attention economy treadmill.  This approach minimizes the harmful aspects of the digital ecosystem while capitalizing on its nimble, accessible, and stigma-reducing aspects.

Finding Personal Zen

I had the idea of humane health technology as a guiding principle when I created the app Personal Zen. Personal Zen is a stress- and anxiety-reduction exercise. The app embeds scientifically-based attention training techniques into an engaging and appealing format. Its scientific “active ingredient” is something called attention bias modification.

Attention biases are rigid and selective ways of paying attention to information in the world. Decades of research tell us that people who tend to be anxious or stressed detect negative information more quickly, and pay attention to it longer and intensely than people who are relatively less anxious and stressed.

This preference to pay attention to the negative is called the threat bias.  And here’s the kicker: The threat bias piggybacks on one of the triumphs of evolution – the ability to quickly and automatically notice danger, which in turn triggers us to fight or take flight to deal with the danger. But the threat bias highjacks and skews this evolutionary advantage. It acts as an unconscious information filter, an imbalance in what we pay attention to that makes us actually prefer and prioritize threat and negativity at the expense of the positive. When the threat bias becomes a rigid habit of looking at the world, it puts our fight/flight response on a hair trigger, and sky-rockets our feelings of stress and anxiety. We see monsters in the closet even when they’re not there.

Personal Zen is designed to retrain our attention to disengage from the negative in flexible ways so that we can better benefit from positive information all around us. This creates a stronger attention filter favoring the positive. As a micro-intervention, it was designed to be used briefly and on-the-go, so it can fit into anyone’s daily routine.

Findings suggest that this technique loosens the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, immediately reducing distress as well as laying the groundwork for positive change. We’ve published three clinical trials of Personal Zen showing that even with short-term use, Personal Zen can reduce stress and anxiety. We’ve recently focused on the potential benefits of Personal Zen for a group of people in particular need of easy-to-access stress-reduction tools that can fit into their busy lives – pregnant women – and found that using Personal Zen for about 30 minutes a week for a month reduced the stress hormone cortisol. While much more work needs to be done, I believe that with this approach, we’re on the right track.

The Future is Now

The field of digital mental health is skyrocketing at a time when there are compelling arguments to reduce screen time. Humane digital mental healthcare must navigate this contradiction while taking the best that digital technology has to offer to actively promote the essence of mental health in us all: the ability to love and create, to have an empowered sense of self, and to embrace objectivity and reason. It’s up to us all, researchers, developers, and healthcare professionals, to get this right.

Can Digital Mental Health Tools Save Psychology?

After decades of research on mental health treatments for conditions ranging from schizophrenia to depression, from anxiety to autism, our track record remains poor. For example, anxiety disorders alone will affect over 90 million people in the lifetime – in the U.S. alone. That’s approaching a third of our population. Yet, only a small fraction of us receive effective, long-lasting treatment. Thus, while we mental health professionals do much good and have some excellent, evidence-based treatments, we also know that, on balance, we are far from doing enough. We are failing.

I believe that there are many reasons for this failure. Psychological disorders are incredibly complex, with diverse and wide-ranging causes and manifestations that vary extremely from person to person. So we have an unbelievably tough problem to solve. But in addition, I believe that there is a two-part “recipe for disaster” that has put up additional barriers to the development of effective treatments:

  1. The stigma of mental illness
  2. Professionals minimize the importance of making treatments acceptable to the individual

The Stigma of Mental Illness

If you type “stigma definition” into Google, here is what comes up:

noun: stigma; plural noun: stigmata; plural noun: stigmas

  1. a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.

“the stigma of mental disorder”

synonyms: shamedisgracedishonorignominyopprobriumhumiliation, (bad) reputation
antonyms: honorcredit

It is no coincidence that mental illness is the paradigmatic example given by the dictionary. It is one of the most pervasive and persistent of the social stigmas. If we think about other sources of stigma – like the stigma suffered by those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s and beyond – the stigma of mental illness is especially striking because mental illness is not contagious. But we fear it as if it were. The mentally ill are NOT more likely to commit violence, and yet, this is what many people fear. Take the media frenzy following the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy as an example of this type of assumption.

As long as mental illness remains a sign of disgrace and dishonor, people will avoid seeking professional help because it makes them feel broken – perhaps beyond repair.

Professionals Minimize the Importance of Making Treatments Acceptable to the Individual

There is another issue exacerbating the barrier represented by the stigma of mental illness. This barrier is that we scientists and practitioners, in our education, are socialized away from figuring out how to provide individuals with services they need in a way that they want – something that is obvious to any product- or service-oriented industry. Instead, we are taught to believe that we know best because we use the tools of science to develop the most efficacious treatments. The implicit narrative is: “We are the experts! We have figured out the best “medicine” for you, now take it!” This arrogance often keeps us from seeing that if we develop treatments that are too onerous or if treatments are embedded in a culture of disgrace and stigma, then we have failed to solve the problem. We have failed to meet “consumer needs.”

This is of course an overstatement and many mental health professionals actively fight against these attitudes. But there is a grain of truth here. Anyone on either side of the mental health fence – both professionals and patients – is familiar with this feeling, whether it’s acknowledged or swept under the rug.

How Digital Mental Health Tools Can Disrupt Stigma and Increase Acceptability of Treatmentspersonal zen achievement

In addition to breaking down barriers to effective, affordable, and accessible mental health treatment, I believe that digital – in particular mobile – mental health tools can be harnessed to have profound and lasting disruptive effects on the stigma of mental illness and on our failure to make acceptability of treatments a top priority. Here are five ways I believe digital mental health tools might just save Psychology:

If treatments are administered on a device, they are normalized 

If we are successful in attempts to embed evidence-based treatments into mobile and gamified formats, I believe we can profoundly reduce the experience of and appearance of stigma. Devices have become our filters of information, our gateways to the world, sources of fun, and our hubs of connection. The actions we perform on our devices, by association, feel more “normal,” more connected to every aspect of our lives and to others. This creates a process of validation rather than shaming. By putting mental health treatments on devices, we might just be normalizing these treatments and creating positive emotional contagion – treatments become “good” by association with the devices we love. And if we gamify interventions, these effects could be strengthened even further.

Self-curating our mental health

With digital mental health tools, accessibility is exponentially increased. For example, with mobile mental health apps, you have affordable help “in the palm of your hand.” This ability to curate creates a sense of empowerment. This is “self-help” in a very real sense. With this high level of accessibility and empowerment, many of us will avail ourselves of interventions to reduce negative experiences and states.  In addition, with the proliferation of digital tools to PROMOTE positive outcomes and to reach our fullest potential, we may find on the societal level that this positive focus is just as helpful – if not more so – as the focus on preventing negative outcomes. This attitude of promoting the positive is an excellent antidote to stigma. Who couldn’t benefit from promoting more of what is positive about oneself and how one lives life?

Digital health technology provides powerful platforms for community building

This is readily apparent. With greater community building comes a sense of belonging and a reduction of isolation. But digital community building also provides opportunities for effective advocacy. Of course, many such groups exist, but excellent digital mental health tools with a social media component could accelerate the creation of such systems, leveraging all the power of an individual’s full social network.

The profit motive will fuel innovation and valuing of consumer perspectives

Once interventions enter the digital and mobile technology world, the accompanying consumer focus (read $$$) will force the development of consumer-oriented products. Users have power in this domain. So, if interventions are onerous, boring, or non-intuitive, people will simply not use them. User stats will do the rest – no one will put resources into a product that people won’t use. Better ones WILL be developed.

Digital mental health increases opportunities for gamification

The gamification of mental health is beginning. At this point, we are taking baby steps, since we have an absence of a strong empirical base; in other words, there is precious little research showing that computerized games have a direct, positive influence on mental illness or on the promotion of mental wellness. But we are only in the earliest, exciting stages of this revolution. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think all treatments should be computerized or gamified, nor do I think face-to-face therapy is obsolete – far from it. But I believe that if fun can be combined with powerful treatment technologies, then we can in a single step make profound progress in erasing the stigma of mental illness and creating treatments that people will truly want to use.

Mental Health on the Go

My forthcoming research paper reporting on a mobile app that gamifies an emerging treatment for anxiety and stress  – a paper that hopefully will be officially out in the next month or so – is starting to be discussed in the media, including the Huffington Post. Thank you Wray Herbert for such great coverage of the study.

 

 

Connectedness and the Call of Anxiety

A study suggests that more frequent mobile phone use might make you more anxious. This could reflect the burden of constant social connectedness, or even nomophobia –  the “no-mobile-phone phobia” of losing connection. But we shouldn’t forget that this is a clear chicken and the egg question….. Are devices making us anxious, or do people who are already anxious just use devices more frequently?

 

 

My Personal Zen

iPhone Screenshot 1

To follow up on my posts about gamifying mental health, I’m excited to announce that Personal Zen, my science-based (but still fun) stress-reduction game, is ready to share with the world! It’s free in the App Store, so please download it and check it out.

Research from my lab supports its efficacy to prevent and reduce stress and anxiety. Yet, as a game, it’s a beta version and our goal is to get any and all feedback to make it more fun, user-friendly, and effective. So please try it and let me know what you think (either via this blog or the app, which has a “send feedback” button in the menu).

My larger goal is to develop a suite of mobile games for health based on sound scientific principles. As we increasingly curate our own emotional and mental wellness, I think it’s crucial that we have scientifically-supported options to chose among. Because stress reduction is key to wellness, that’s where I’m starting with Personal Zen.

Here’s how it works (as I wrote in the App Store): When we get anxious or stressed, we pay too much attention to the negatives and have less ability to see the positives in life. These habits of attention reduce our ability to cope effectively with stress and can create a vicious cycle of anxiety. Personal Zen helps to short-circuit these habits and frees you up to develop a more flexible and positive focus. You can reduce your stress and anxiety in as little as one sitting, and the more you play, the more you strengthen well-being and vaccinate yourself against the negative effects of stress.

Essentially, the app works by helping people build new habits of paying attention to the world. But building new habits takes some practice, so we recommend spending time with it every week. I love using it on the NYC subways, and it’s truly “snackable” in that using it a few minutes at a time reaps benefits.

If you’re interested in any of the scientific background on the app, I’m happy to share both specific take-home messages and data.

Gamifying Mental Health or: Mental Health – We Got Game

I just attended the second annual Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society (ESCoNS) conference. Say that five times fast.  This conference brought together people in the gaming world with cognitive neuroscientists. I went because I’m developing (and testing) an app that I believe can help people reduce stress, worry, and anxiety in their lives. In addition to more deeply exploring how to make mental health truly fun, I felt that I was seeing the future of mental health unfolding before my eyes.

Gamifying mental health

Here are four ideas I think will change how the field of mental health will look in a decade (or less):

1. Mental health care WILL BE gamified. The mobile revolution and app zeitgeist have changed how we get things done. We want an app for everything because we want our life mobile and streamlined, and the minute we think we want to do something, we want a device to help us do it. We also are trusting ourselves (and our networks) more and professionals less. This is the self-help movement taken to a new level. If we can seek mental health support on our devices rather than through a professional, more of us will do so. This plays into our growing tendency to feel more comfortable with devices than with others – this may be good or bad, or somewhere in between, but this is how it is.  I believe that it is not whether mental health care will be gamified, it is only a question of how and when.

2. Fun will motivate mental health treatment seeking. Scientists interested in human beings understand how to break something down into its component parts (whether an idea, a behavior, or a biological response) to study it, but scientists are not trained to construct something that is fun and that motivates people to come back again and again. That is art and intuition, combined with a lot of experience and good old-fashioned luck. If we want to reach the greatest number of people, and help them integrate mental health interventions into their lives, we need to make mental health fun.

3. Training your brain….with video games? The idea that you could train your brain with video games is still perceived by many to be in the realm of science fiction. But if you think about the fact that every experience we have, particularly repeated experiences, change our brains – why wouldn’t a video game? This reflects the important concept of neural plasticity – that the structure and function of the brain is malleable and changeable not just in childhood, but throughout the lifespan. In addition to games that can train different abilities (e.g., attention in kids with ADHD) technologies like virtual reality are being used as safe and effective ways to treat everything from addiction to post-traumatic stress disorder.

 4. The Emotional Brain is a “buzzing” target for intervention. In the 20th century, psychology was dominated by cognitive theories of how the brain works and what causes mental illness. Emotion was a little blip on the screen, an irrational irritant to the otherwise rational, predictable, and orderly domain of the thinking mind. Now, that irritant is an increasingly important focus of research. For example, not much more than a decade ago, economic decision making was understood as a “rational” process. Now it’s assumed that emotions influence our decisions, for better and for worse, and the task is to figure out how. The effect of emotion is not “irrational.” Rather, it reflects the fundamental integration between our ability to feel and to think. Without one, the other is deeply impoverished. As an emotion researcher, my colleagues and I are happy everyone has caught up – it’s about time! Emotions are the engines of our lives – and of psychopathology. No real living happens in an emotional vacuum.

It was clear to me from the conference that there is an emerging field in which the gaps between clinical psychology, cognitive neuroscience and entertainment are being bridged. This field is fundamentally interested in the emotional and social brain and “healthy emotional brain architecture” will be the goal of many computerized, gamified interventions. Increasingly, people predict a (near) future in which games will routinely be prescribed in the doctor’s office, and may eventually replace the office visit. If we can change our emotional brains, we can change ourselves. At least, that’s what many are counting on.