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Digital interventions for mental health

In this video, Dr Lina Gega explores how digital technologies can be employed to benefit mental health.
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Digital media have been used to facilitate two types of mental
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health interventions: mental health promotion and mental health “treatment”. Mental health promotion aims to improve mental wellbeing, irrespective of the presence or absence of specific signs and symptoms. In this context, digital media have been used to encourage exercise and an active lifestyle, monitor alcohol use and diet, facilitate social connectedness and information sharing. Safeguarding online users from cyber-bullying and trolling, along with opening access to education and work opportunities to under-privileged populations through digital media can also promote mental wellbeing. To improve mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, by targeting specific signs and symptoms, digital interventions are used as ‘treatment’ or ‘therapy’ tools.
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Digital media serve three main functions as therapy tools: learning, application and review. As a case in point for learning, there are dozens of software-based therapy programmes for depression that can help users understand the principles of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and develop skills in capturing negative, self-defeating thoughts and constructing more helpful alternatives. Second, in the context of application, we have an example of a system that uses chroma-key video capture to help people with social anxiety or interpersonal difficulties rehearse social skills in a variety of virtual social scenarios. Other examples include numerous apps that have been developed to allow real time practice in everyday life of mindfulness exercises or controlled breathing for people with panic or generalised anxiety.
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Finally, mobile technology has been used to track therapeutic activity and progress, through self-monitoring. Feedback can be automated via a ‘clever’ digital system that processes information about the user, like Artificial Intelligence; however, mental health technology is not yet as clever or intuitive or accountable as a competent and compassionate person, so a blended approach to intervention is often safer
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or more effective: a person who supports the intervention – a doctor, a therapist or a volunteer - receives information from the system and then – as appropriate - makes decisions and offers relevant therapeutic or motivational advice.
In this video, Dr Lina Gega talks about some of the ways digital technologies can be employed in mental health promotion and ‘treatment’.

Mental health promotion

We’re all probably quite familiar with the way in which digital media promotes health. From breakfast television exercise routines through to things like the Fitbit and its equivalents, media and technology new and old have established in us a reasonably strong understanding of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. Some have sought to capitalise on this, and there’s no shortage of quackery, but that’s probably indication of a successful method of communication and dissemination! In terms of mental wellbeing, we’ve seen, throughout this MOOC, examples of how digital technology can be both a hindrance and a help, generating new problems like cyber-bullying and trolling, but also coming up with ways to manage and overcome them. Indeed, as Dr Gega suggests, the ways in which digital technology can facilitate connectedness and open up access to educational resources are themselves potential sources of digital wellbeing. Hopefully this MOOC has been able to live up to that to some extent!

Mental health treatment

But digital technology can also be employed in clinically therapeutic ways. Dr Gega has pioneered developments in the area of computerised cognitive behavioural therapy (cCBT), wherein digital technology is used to improve patients’ access to psychological therapies. This has led to online cCBT courses such as Beating the Blues being recommended as treatments in guidelines by the UK’s National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).
Another approach Dr Gega mentions is a system that uses chroma-key video capture to help people with social anxiety or interpersonal difficulties rehearse social skills in a variety of virtual social scenarios. You can read more about it here:
Dr Gega also mentions how mobile apps have been developed to allow real time practice in everyday life, and that’s an area we’ll look at more closely in the next step…
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