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The Positive Potential of Tech on Mental Health

Written by Jennifer Marron | Published on October 21, 2020

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The unprecedented disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has made this an extraordinarily challenging period for us all.

In-person interactions have been replaced with digital. We can no longer gather and socialize in lunch rooms, hallways or classrooms. Activities that bring our youth joy can't be experienced the way they used to be. Coupled with new feelings of loneliness and fear of the virus, our country's longstanding mental health crisis has worsened. Even before the pandemic, an estimated 75 per cent of youth with mental health disorders did not access the specialized care they need. Wait times for counselling and therapy were often six months to one year in Ontario, for example. That backlog has only worsened these past months.

Another culprit? Our devices. The Canadian Pediatric Society says high school students now spend more than 7.5 hours per day on various screens, with 20 per cent of high school-aged children logging five hours per day on social media alone.

There are clear links between screen time and mental health – and anxiety rates among youth are through the roof. Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, a physician and brain scientist at Duke University, who joined us on a previous RBC Disruptors episode, says our brains are continuously adapting to the new things we're doing in our lives – such as interacting with technology – and rewiring themselves. New research from the University of Calgary shows that 96 per cent of those aged 25 and under report feeling moderate or high levels of stress as a result of the pandemic.

So how can we harness our increasing reliance on screens in a positive way, to deliver meaningful mental health support? With COVID forcing so many aspects of our lives to go digital – fast – the time to create lasting change is now – but there's lots to consider.

"What we should be doing is co-designing," said Dr. Joanna Henderson, a clinical psychologist and a director at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Henderson was one of our guests on the most recent episode of RBC Disruptors, which delves into the potential risks and rewards of our growing dependence on technology during the pandemic. Simply moving counselling sessions over to Zoom won't cut it, she says. "Using technology to deliver services isn't just about taking what we do in person and then offering it through the technological interface," Henderson said. It is instead about leveraging the technologies that young people already use to develop new kinds of services for youth that deliver the kinds of support they need.

But users should be careful – there are thousands of problematic "health and wellness" apps, none of which should be viewed as a one-stop solution. There are "probably 50,000" health care-related apps out there, said Dr. Yuri Quintana, chief of the Division of Clinical Informatics at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Many of them don't get used and part of it is that the style, the content and the way in which people connect to them haven't been designed in proper ways or evaluated in proper ways.

Quintana believes a blended approach works best, noting that people have different needs, and may require a combination of approaches (apps, telehealth, in-person services) tailored to different individuals. He says it's about creating new and different models by understanding how virtual services can be leveraged as part of an overall approach. "I think one of the challenges that providers will need to face is how to develop the right blend of services, both technology-based and in-person based for different individuals at different stages of their life. Part of what we need to do now is develop the research to understand what types of technology are appropriate for what types of individuals and what kinds of situations," said Quintana. "This COVID pandemic really has woken up people to the need to make services more accessible to everyone," he said.

To hear the full conversation, listen and subscribe to the RBC Disruptors podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

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