Mental health apps won’t get you off the couch

“Everyone is very excited Ho about therapy these days. I was curious myself, but not ready to commit to paying for it. It seems like a mental health app could be a good starting point. But is it really useful? “

– a rational skeptic

Dear Conscious,

The first time you open Headspace, one of the most popular mental health apps, you’re greeted with an image of a blue sky—a metaphor for an undisturbed mind—and encouraged to take several deep breaths. Atmospheric instructions tell you precisely when to inhale, when to hold, and when to exhale, and the beats measured by a white progress bar, as if you were waiting for a download to complete. Some people may find this comforting, though I bet that for every user whose mind is quietly floating in the divided blue, there is another glancing at the clock, rummaging at their inbox, or worrying about the future — wondering, perhaps, The ultimate fate of a species must be directed to carry out the most basic and automatic biological functions.

Shortness of breath, or shortness of breath, is a common side effect of anxiety, which, along with depression, rose by a whopping 25 percent globally between 2020 and 2021, according to a report from the World Health Organization. It is no coincidence that this mental health crisis has been combined with an explosion of behavioral health apps. (In 2020, they’ve secured more than $2.4 billion in venture capital investments.) And you’re certainly not alone, mind you, in doubting the effectiveness of these products. Given the inequality and insufficient access to affordable mental health services, many have questioned whether these digital tools are “evidence-based”, and whether they serve as effective alternatives to professional help.

However, I would argue that such apps are not intended as replacements for therapy, but rather a digital update to the self-help genre. Like the paperbacks found in the personal growth sections of libraries, these apps promise just that Psychological health They can be improved through “self-awareness” and “self-knowledge”—pointing out that, like many of their peers (self-care, self-empowerment, self-departure), they are imposed on individuals in the midst of public institutions and social safety nets.

Self-help is, of course, a philosophically awkward idea. It is a process that involves dividing the self into two entities, the helper and the recipient. The analytical tools offered by these apps (exercise, mood, sleep tracking) invite users to become both a scientist and an object, taking note of their behavioral data and looking for patterns and connections – a concern linked to poor night’s sleep, for example, or that regular workouts It improves satisfaction. Mood checks ask users to identify their feelings and bring up messages that stress the importance of emotional awareness. (“Acknowledgment of how we feel helps strengthen our resilience.”) These thoughts may seem like a no-brainer—the kind of intuitive knowledge people can access without the aid of automated prompts—but if breathing exercises are any indication, these are designed Apps for people who are deeply disconnected from their nervous systems.

Of course, for all the focus on self-knowledge and personal data, what these apps don’t help you understand is why you’re feeling anxious or depressed in the first place. This is the question most people seek to answer through therapy, and it’s worth asking about the mental health crisis in our society as a whole. This predicament is clearly beyond my experience as a consulting columnist, but I’ll leave you with a few things to consider.

Linda Stone, researcher and former CEO of Apple and Microsoft, coined the term “screen apnea” to describe the tendency to hold one’s breath or breathe more shallowly while using screens. This phenomenon occurs across many digital activities (see “Email Apnea” and “Apnea When Zooming in”) and can lead to disturbed sleep, decreased energy levels, or increased depression and anxiety. There are many theories as to why extended device use puts the body into a state of stress—psychological stimulation, exposure to light, the looming threat of work emails and doomsday addresses—but the bottom line seems to be that digital technologies trigger a biological state that mirrors fight-or-flight response.

It’s true that many mental health apps recommend activities or “to-dos” that involve getting off the phone. But these tasks tend to be done in isolation (push-ups, walking, guided meditations), and because they are completed so that they are validated, tracked, and included in general mental health stats, apps end up assigning utility value to the activities they should be. Fun in itself. This makes it difficult to practice those mindfulness techniques — living in the moment, letting go of mindful self-monitoring — that are supposed to relieve stress. By trying to instill more self-awareness, in other words, these apps end up intensifying the division many of us already feel on virtual platforms.

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