Mental health treatment in the digital age

Part of our special report on innovation

Mending minds.
(Image credit: iStock)

One hallmark of depression is the extent to which it can prevent sufferers from seeking out the help they need. Many people don't even know depression is the right term for what stops them from getting out of bed in the morning or hinders their productivity at work. And even if you can put your finger on it, it's not easy to find the time, courage, or motivation to start therapy. Nor, of course, is it easy to stare down the stigma society still associates with mental illness.

There's no true substitute for traditional, proven treatment like therapy and psychiatry. But that doesn't mean there isn't space for new technological initiatives to help people manage depression. Different strategies appeal to different people based on cost, time commitment, and comfort. No online solutions for managing depression will be universal, but they're also not meant to be. After all, you wouldn't expect a single therapist or prescription to make everyone feel better.

Still, with those limitations in mind, the growing number of online options available to people suffering from depression looks promising.

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One compelling way to offer suggestions for managing depression is to go on social networks, where people already hang out, rather than pulling them away from their day-to-day activities to seek aid. With help from a clinical psychologist, an MIT doctoral student built Panoply for his thesis. It's a social network specifically designed to help people change the way the think through cognitive behavioral therapy.

"Just like there are all these people helping me identify bugs in my code, perhaps I could create a similarly engaging and social system to help me identify bugs in my thinking," Panoply creator Robert Morris told Wired.

Innovative treatment for depression doesn't have to mean leveraging new technology or building a platform from scratch. A tiny corner of Reddit — arguably the least likely of places to champion the vulnerable — has blossomed into a safe haven for people considering suicide. Slate's Amanda Hess points out that most users who post seeking help are clearly aware of suicide hotlines, but don't feel the person fielding calls, a total stranger, can understand them as well as those in their community. With Reddit and Panoply both, perhaps the most novel appeal is the convenience with which people can anonymously swap stories with people who feel like equals.

But group settings, even in the digital world, aren't for everyone. That's okay — technology is paving the way for more personal options, too. A Vice writer chronicled her experience texting a therapist through a startup called Talkspace. It's also possible to arrange video calls at an added cost to the relatively cheap $25-per-week quarterly baseline. Ultimately, the writer decided after a couple of months that the quick support text therapy offered wasn't for her. But the unscheduled, text-as-you-please approach might be what someone else with a busy schedule or shy demeanor needs.

A constant stream of new research and findings promises to keep transforming how we identify and treat depression. Researchers say with just a blood test and a questionnaire, they can identify patients who will have suicidal thoughts within the next year. An app called MoodTrek makes it easier for patients to record feelings, symptoms, and sleep habits in between psychiatrist visits. And the National Institute of Mental Health, a government agency, offers grant money to small businesses that build innovative technology dedicated to mental health research and treatment.

More outlets for support and treatment are available now then ever before. Complements to traditional approaches like online communities and apps can make all the difference in connecting people to not only information and strategies, but also health professionals and peers. It's that exposure to a variety of outlets that ultimately gives people their best shot at progress.

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Julie Kliegman

Julie Kliegman is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in BuzzFeed, Vox, Mental Floss, Paste, the Tampa Bay Times and PolitiFact. Her cats can do somersaults.