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November 27, 2017
by Tracey Block

Technology is Reshaping Mental Health

November 27, 2017 08:00 by Tracey Block  [About the Author]

The fictional 23rd century medical tricorder used by Dr. “Bones” McCoy in the 1960s Star Trek television series is not yet available to diagnose the physical and mental ailments of 21st century humans. But mobile apps, avatars and virtual reality are already proving how current digital tools are restructuring age-old methods of assisting those with mental illnesses. And while negative commentaries abound on the ways technology adversely affects the quality of face-to-face interactions, the field of mental health is applauding its ground-breaking developments.

One of the most widespread and identifiable of digital technologies is the mobile phone or smartphone. Adding to the ease of daily use of these hand-held computers are the self-help apps [applications/computer programs] that can be downloaded and used as needed, including diet, exercise, and mental wellness apps.

Mental health apps cannot replace live interaction with a therapist, but since being introduced, their value and efficacy have been researched and well recognized. In a 2016 article published in The Journal of Medical Internet Research, academics David Bakker et al discussed the surge in therapeutic apps and made recommendations for the future.

According to their analysis, “the demand for MHapps [mental health apps] is strong.” The availability of mobile apps is “. . . making mental health support more accessible and reducing barriers to help seeking . . . given that only a small fraction of people suffering from mood or anxiety problems seek professional help.”

Since barriers to seeking mental health assistance include financial restraints and geographic limitations, Bakker et al recognize the flexibility apps provide. “Smartphones are not constrained by geography and are usually used privately by one individual,” they explained. In addition, they support the suitability of mental health apps to the “high need for autonomy” of today’s youth who “also prefer self-help support materials if they are delivered via a familiar medium, such as a personal smartphone”. 

Rick Nauert, Ph.D., in his article, explained the results of a recent Brigham Young University study on health apps. “[T]he really good news was the response from mental and emotional health app users: 90 percent reported increased motivation, confidence, intention, and attitudes about being mentally and emotionally healthy,” he wrote.

Nauert quoted Ben Crookston, associate professor of health science at Brigham Young University: “This is great news for people looking for inexpensive, easily accessible resources to help combat mental and emotional health illness and challenges.”

For some, smartphone apps may not provide enough support for their mental health issues, but digital technology can assist in another way. The challenge of overcoming—or living with--auditory hallucinations or hearing voices is one such example.

In a study published last week in The Lancet Psychiatry, researchers Ben Alderson-Day and Nev Jones discussed the recent use of AVATAR therapy (invented in 2008) for mental health patients whose auditory hallucinations failed to ease with medication or therapy.

In recent years, especially in the digital world of games and virtual worlds, avatars have become defined as graphic representations, personalized to characterize the users’ images of themselves.

In the realm of mental health, AVATAR therapy draws on similar graphic images. During therapy, “staff help voice-hearers to design an audio-visual representation of the heard voice to facilitate a therapeutic dialogue, with the AVATAR voice being controlled by the therapist,” wrote Alderson-Day and Jones.

According to a article by Michael Nedelman, “[A] therapist speaks through the avatar, using the software to change the pitch of their voice to match what the patients hear in their heads. Occasionally, the therapist chimes in with their own voice, offering words of encouragement.”

The therapy aims to provide the voice-hearer with better “responses, challenges, and answers” by providing a graphic/physical image with which to engage. The difficulty that still exists, however, is that while the patient may be changing as a result of the therapy, the voice being heard may not be changing for the patient. Further research is also analyzing whether the newness of the technology keeps patients engaged in therapy, or if the therapy is truly absorbing.

Beyond apps and avatars, another facet of computer technology allows people with mental health challenges a different kind of therapy through virtual reality (VR). As Daniel Freeman, Ph.D., and Jason Freeman explained in their March 2017 article for Psychology Today, VR was first developed in the 1960s at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, in over 50 years, its basic functions have changed little.

Freeman and Freeman explained that in VR, “. . . a computer generates an image, a display system presents the sensory information, and a tracker feeds back the user’s position and orientation in order to update the image.” What is new, they said, is VR’s recent application to the field of mental health.

The advantage of VR is its “. . . extraordinary ability to create powerful simulations of the scenarios in which psychological difficulties occur,” they wrote. With VR, a patient can participate in exposure therapy, for example, with support from their therapist, without having to leave the therapist’s office to attempt an exercise alone. “Suddenly there’s no need for a therapist to accompany a client on a trip to a crowded shopping center, for example, or up a tall building.”

While still in its infancy, mental health researchers are hopeful VR will assist patients with eating disorders, anxiety and more. Exploration of the final frontier for digital technology use in mental health therapy has only just begun. And like outer space, it appears the opportunities are endless.




Alderson-Day, B., & Jones, N., (November 23, 2017). The Lancet Psychiatry. Understanding AVATAR therapy: who, or what, is changing?

Bakker, D., B.Psych. (Hons), Kazantzis, N., Ph.D., Rickwood, D., BA (Hons), Ph.D., Rickard, N., BBSc. (Hons), Ph.D., (Psych.)., (March 1, 2016). The Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health Smartphone Apps: Review and Evidence-Based Recommendations for Future Developments.

Freeman, D., Ph.D., & Freeman, J., (March 27, 2017). Psychology Today. Why Virtual Reality Could Be a Mental Health Gamechanger.

Nedelman, M., (November 23, 2017). ‘Avatar therapy’ aims to help those who hear voices.

Rick Nauert, Ph.D., (Retrieved November 22, 2017). Mobile Apps Can Help Manage and Support Mental, Emotional Health.


About the Author

Tracey Block
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