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Psychologist encourages use of mental health apps, as global reports of anxiety, depression surge

Published:Tuesday | October 26, 2021 | 12:06 AM
Associate clinical psychologist with Family Life Ministries, Kamala McWhinney.
Associate clinical psychologist with Family Life Ministries, Kamala McWhinney.
Henry Osborne, technical product manager at The Jamaica National Group.
Henry Osborne, technical product manager at The Jamaica National Group.
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SINCE THE COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in the number of reported mental health issues, with increasing symptoms of burnout, which manifest itself in workplace absenteeism and loss of productivity.

According to a report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which surveyed adults across the United States of America in late June of 2020, 31 per cent of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, 13 per cent reported having started or increased substance use, 26 per cent reported stress-related symptoms, and 11 per cent reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days. These numbers are nearly double the rates that would have been expected before the pandemic, said the CDC.

The data seem to be the same in the Caribbean, with a UNICEF report showing that the COVID-19 crisis is having a significant impact on the mental health of adolescents and young people in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The World Health Organization estimates that depression, anxiety disorders, and other conditions cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

Recently, there has been a proliferation of mental health apps that are available to smartphone users. These reasonably priced or, most often, free apps, offer a wealth of resources that make therapeutic techniques more accessible, portable, and cost-effective. At least one local counsellor has said these technological aids can assist in the psychotherapy process.

“I believe mental health apps, in general, can play a powerful role in the self-management of some symptoms of mental health problems,” said associate clinical psychologist with Family Life Ministries, Kamala McWhinney.

“These apps can help persons to access information and resources that can have great impact. They can be used to great effect, to assist persons to continue well-being assignments and self-monitoring work given by therapists,” she added.

TYPES OF APPS ON THE MARKET

Henry Osborne, technical product manager at The Jamaica National Group, cited the following apps that are available. These, he said, include:

Calm: An app that delivers meditation sessions that can help persons de-stress, as well as breathing programmes, music, and sounds from nature to aid relaxation and promote better sleep. Calm can be accessed on iOS and Android devices, as well as desktop computers.

Moodnotes: A thought journal and mood diary. People can track their feelings and improve their thinking habits through techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy and positive psychology. It is only available on iOS.

Osborne noted that there is also artificial intelligence (AI), which is already transforming different industries, including mental health.

“Machine learning and advanced AI technologies are enabling a new type of care that focuses on providing individualised emotional support. For example, Ginger. It combines machine learning and a clinical network to provide you with the right level of emotional support at the right time. This platform integrates clinicians with AI and offers 24/7 online cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and resilience training,” he said.

He added that advances in natural language processing and the popularity of smartphones have made chat bots the new starlets of AI for mental health care.

“Chatbots are constantly improving to become more human-like and natural. They also offer different language options,” he explained.

Another example of chatbots being utilised in mental health care is Woebot, disclosed Osborne. This, he said, is a chatbot that resembles an instant messaging service. The digital health technology asks about your mood and thoughts, ‘listens’ to how you are feeling, learns about you and offers evidence-based cognitive behaviour therapy tools. Interactions with Woebot aim to emulate a real-life, face-to-face meeting, and the interaction is tailored to the individual’s situation.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the United States of America, there are some advantages of mental healthcare apps. These include convenience, as treatment can take place any time and anywhere, and may be ideal for those who have trouble with in-person appointments.

TECHNOLOGY SHOULD NOT BE USED IN ISOLATION

However, McWhinney has some concerns about the technology being used in isolation. Expounding on her reservations, she said that ideally, the technology should be used as an “aid in the therapeutic process, as opposed to a stand-alone resource”.

“For example, some apps help to increase insight into the symptoms of anxiety and the triggers; however, without an integrated platform where there are trained professionals providing support, the psychological causes and stressors at the root of the mental disorder will not be addressed,” McWhinney said.

Supporting McWhinney, Osborne cautioned that apps are no substitute for a professional mental health practitioner.

Locally, there is also a mental health/suicide helpline established by the Ministry of Health and Wellness, in partnership with the non-governmental organisation Choose Life International, which provides support to persons in need of assistance.

The helpline, 1-888-NEW-LIFE (1-888-639-5433), provides 24-hour assistance to persons with mental health issues seeking help.