The role of technology in supporting mental health

Research by insurance giant Axa has found that British adults are suffering a stress ‘epidemic’, with nearly half (four out of 10) adults feeling stressed during a typical week.

An ‘always on’ workplace culture has been named as the primary cause, with many people citing the need to check emails in the evening and at weekends as a key driver for poor mental health.

With NHS Digital also saying that a sixth of all people aged 16 to 64 have a mental health problem, the negative impact of technology on our wellbeing is clear to see.

We can’t afford to sit back and wait for this stress epidemic to disappear. This requires immediate action—but technology and innovation can also be part of the answer.

That’s not to say it’s as simple as getting people to sign up to an app or buy a new gadget—it’s a question of fundamentally rewiring our working culture and seizing the potential of connectivity.

Identifying when someone’s suffering

A big societal challenge is identifying when someone may be feeling depressed or anxious. Sadly, there remains a stigma attached to mental health which means that some people are afraid to seek support.

But we’re now seeing important innovations in automated therapy, harnessing the power of AI to help those in need.

Take Woebot, for example. It’s an artificially intelligent ‘e-therapist’ that talks to you about your day. Created by clinical psychologists at Stanford University, it’s a chatbot with an interface like WhatsApp.

If you’ve had a tough day, Woebot helps reframe the problem based on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).

Towards the end of 2018, researchers at MIT also announced the results of a study that used neural networks to recognise speech patterns in people susceptible to depression. Detecting such problems has been possible through machine analysis of question and answer formats, but this AI model was based on free-flowing conversations.

What could this mean for the future? Will we soon be able to use AI to detect when someone’s feeling down and give them the support and advice they need?

Mindfulness: an answer to daily emotional challenges

Mindfulness has been a topic of much discussion in recent years and is already making a huge difference to the way people tackle the complexities of modern life. With that has also come a swathe of apps that help support mindfulness without needing a physical guide in the room.

Research has shown that using these apps can lead to more positive emotions and feeling less burdened by external demands, responsibilities and pressure. Apps such as Headspace and Pacifica are providing people with guided meditation techniques and helping them to manage their mood throughout the day.

Personalisation: a game-changer

People differ in how they deal with depression and anxiety, meaning standardised approaches don’t really cut it. That’s why an effective mental health approach requires an element of personalisation.

And technology is allowing people to personalise their experience when addressing their psychological issues. Progress is already underway: VR headsets are being used to help desensitise people suffering from the likes of acrophobia (fear of heights), post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.

If you have a fear of flying, for example, you could use virtual reality to take off, fly and land in a safe environment, such as your living room. In turn, this can help to develop coping techniques.

Personalisation must be at the heart of future mental health technology—and that’s something we’re applying at Virgin Media Business as well.

Ensuring our people thrive

Our Thrive Initiative contains an online hub – The Retreat – dedicated to helping our employees look after their mental health in and out of the workplace.

We understand that mental health is complex and often dependent on multiple factors—social, financial, mental and physical. That’s why we provide tips on making positive lifestyle changes. We’ve also ensured there is a personal element, encouraging people to reflect on their ‘Thrive moments’ and, if they’re comfortable, share these stories with others.

Clearly, if we recognise that mental health is multi-faceted and execute a vision that considers the differing factors at play, we can embed a respect for human psychology within working cultures and wider society.

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