Blog Global Health Center

Mental health technologies: A “side effect” of COVID-19

Written by Arielle Smith, BA candidate in Psychological & Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis and participant in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

If the podcasts you listen to are anything like those that I enjoy, you must be hearing a lot of advertisements for online counseling services like BetterHelp. During the pandemic, the ads have focused on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 and the importance of online counseling since it can be accessed at home during these unprecedented times. Awareness and use of such services has increased out of necessity, but the conditions that set this development in motion are changing. As vaccination rates increase and our conversation shifts to considering what a “post-COVID” society might look like, we need to consider how mental health technologies can remain prominent in it.

Using computers (and phones) to get mental health support is beginning to feel second nature. Photo: Polina Zimmerman via Pexels

Online counseling is just one of the numerous ways that technology has been infused with mental health services. The broader umbrella of mental health technologies includes teletherapy, self-guided and coached mobile applications and online modules, automated chatbots that use artificial intelligence, wearable devices, and virtual reality experiences. The applications of these technologies range from one-on-one services between a provider and a client (e.g., teletherapy) to self-guided intervention and prevention programs that can be disseminated to entire populations (e.g., mobile apps).

The pandemic has primed us to welcome this wide variety of mental health technologies and they should remain a routine component of mental health services going forward. Even when there are in-person options available to some, this is not the case for everyone given the mental health treatment gap. With this in mind, among the advantages of mental health technologies is their capacity to provide lower cost, scalable support in order to reach more people. In addition to expanding care to underserved populations, mental health technologies can provide convenience, anonymity, and support between in-person therapy to all users. While there are controversies with mental health technologies that need to be addressed in research and regulation, such as the proliferation of mobile apps that lack evidence-base, the benefits of mental health technologies make them worth exploring.

This summer, I have the incredible opportunity to work with Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, PhD, on a research study testing a mobile app and associated social networking community for teenagers with subclinical or clinical eating disorders. Most individuals with eating disorders, including teenagers, do not receive treatment. Addressing the treatment barriers teenagers face and connecting this population with evidence-based support is of the utmost importance because early intervention predicts better outcomes. A mental health technology is being investigated in this study as a delivery model to do so. The reasoning applies to many populations who have been shown to similarly benefit from early intervention yet do not receive treatment.

I implore us to remember the benefits that mental health technologies have outside of the pandemic context. Mental health technologies should be a standard part of our health care systems ­– let’s make them a part of our “new normal.”