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Everything will be all right: Apps and services for improving mental health

Laura Blackwell | Aug. 30, 2013
Is your online life getting you down? Cheer up—there's a friendlier Web out there.

sad man

Let's face it: The Web can be downright nasty. Some people are just tools, and they wreak havoc online.

Among those cute kitten pictures and hilarious Vine clips, it's easy to find examples of people being downright ugly. Angry, vitriolic commenters, unkind memes, and cyberbullying-related suicides reveal a dark side of the Internet. But it also has a silver lining in the cloud. Additionally, plenty of places on the Web are eager to help you get through tough times: the wildly popular It Gets Better Project, for example, or the hugfest featured on the Nicest Place on the Internet.

Always at the ready, our personal tech—especially apps and websites—can be a strong ally for improving our mental health. But general apps don't always know how to help. In a Psych Central blog post in March 2012, Summer Beretsky posted video and a transcript of a long and frustrating attempt to get Siri to connect her to a suicide prevention center. At one low point, Siri met Baretsky's "How can I kill myself?" with "Checking on that for you. How about a Web search for 'How can I kill myself?'" (You can facepalm now).

Earlier this summer, Apple quietly updated Siri's response to such questions. Now, when Siri hears the statement "I want to kill myself," the virtual assistant offers to dial the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It's an important step—and far from the only resource available. Take a look at the apps and services making the biggest strides in marrying technology with mental wellness.

Moving mental health online
Psychology apps and websites mimic behavioral therapy, explains Lee Ritterband, Ph.D., only it's "fully automated, using technology instead of other means" such as one-to-one counseling. Ritterband, director of the Behavioral Health & Technology Laboratory in the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia, thinks apps can definitely serve some of the same purposes as human therapists.

He also cites several reasons for the rise of Internet-based mental-health intervention. As the president (and a founding member) of the Internet Society for Research on Internet Interventions, he notes that a fellow founding member hailed from Australia, a country where the spread-out "geography demands changes [in mental health]," he says. A third is from Sweden, which had a wait list of several months for psychological treatment, giving Internet- and app-based therapy obvious appeal.

Ritterband says there are a lot of benefits to Internet interventions: "convenience, availability, standardization, same dosage and content, tracking features, feedback, tailoring to users." Internet interventions and their positive-psychology cousins are appealing to potential patients as well as to clinicians. "There's a stigma about mental health in general, which is part of the value of these apps," says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and faculty director of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology's media psychology program. "Some can be used with or without support."


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