How Teens Are Using Technology To Combat Mental Illness
There are plenty of reasons why far too many of the 1 in 5 teens who have mental health disorders don't receive treatment. The stigma and shame that surround the disorder — especially as it pertains to gender stereotypes about mental health — is certainly a major factor. So are various cultural beliefs about mental illness: In fact, minorities are less likely to use mental health services than their white counterparts. Then there are the myriad personal factors, such as complex relationships with parents or other authority figures. The list goes on.
But no matter the reason, there's an emerging alternative treatment that harnesses the power of connectivity and community to addresses these under-discussed causes. It's called "peer support" and medical professionals and teens alike are embracing it — and technology is at the heart of it.
"Many people experiencing mental health issues also experience isolation, alienation and discrimination," Susan Eustace, clinical director of the Centre for Professional Therapy and core member of the doctoral program in counseling psychology at Trinity College Dublin, told the FBomb. Traditional mental health treatments often "fail to adequately recognize or address the role of social supports in achieving and maintaining recovery," she added.
Peer support can address these gaps, she noted, by providing essential elements of recovery such as "acceptance, being listened to, and being valued as a human being" and can help someone "feel connected and give them a sense of belonging – very valuable assets on the road to recovery."
Technology can play a crucial role in this process by connecting people suffering from mental illnesses in less than hospitable environments to individuals and communities willing to embrace them. TalkLife — an app that facilitates a global peer support network for young people to reach out about taboo issues such as depression, self harm and body image — does just that.
"Users give help and get help in a safe, social networking environment," TalkLife founder Andrew Montesi told the FBomb. "TalkLife opens pathways and breaks stigma in an environment where 70% of youth with a mental health disorder are not seeking professional help."
James Taylor, one teenage user of TalkLife, affirms that the app does just that. Peer support as experienced through the app, he said, feels like "talking to a friend about the way you feel and is always in a more relaxed environment," which he finds preferable to the often "daunting" traditional therapy, he told the FBomb. "Because I've been able to talk about things so freely, I've benefited from being able to accept the way I'm feeling and that it is totally normal to feel that way sometimes."
While some may be skeptical about the effectiveness or even safety of peers advising each other on potentially serious illnesses, Susan Eustace affirms that — though still emerging — research largely supports the method's effectiveness.
"Some studies show peer support to be as effective as support from healthcare professionals in terms of symptom reduction and quality of life," she told the FBomb. "Other studies show peer support makes no difference to symptom reduction or number of hospital admissions. However, the same studies show some evidence for a positive effect on recovery and a more optimistic view of the future."
But until research is clearer and more robust, she noted, healthcare professionals should certainly remain cautious and advocate for peer support as an additional resource. Connectedness, belonging and acceptance — which peer support affords — certainly help reduce feelings of isolation and rejection and this can only benefit individuals, she noted.
"Accessing help is the first important step on the road to recovery," Eustace said. Especially where traditional mental health services are limited or non-existent for suffering individuals, peer support "can provide hope and hope itself plays an important role in recovery from mental health issues ... Having the support and empathic listening of those who have been through their own mental health issues can help open the door to recovery."
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