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Jessica Crawford turns off the lights and settles into bed. With her heating pad soothing her sore shoulders, she turns on her Stop, Breathe & Think app. Listening to the voice streaming from her phone, she sinks further into relaxation.
“I never make it to the end of the meditation, I always pass out,” she says. Going through her body scan exercise, she focuses on relaxing.
Crawford, a third-year Ryerson nursing student, is using one of many mental health apps available on the market today. These apps are soaring in popularity and have become an easy way for millennials to access self-treatment options for their mental health.
From journaling to guided meditation to the practice of mindfulness, there’s an app for just about every specific need possible.
Often, advice for those feeling stressed, overwhelmed or anxious has been to unplug from our over-stimulating digital world.
But when it comes to devoting time to improving our mental well-being, spending time plugged into these apps could encourage us to be more aware of how we feel.
Take Stigma, an app created by Digital Media Zone (DMZ) alumnus Dan Seider. The app tracks users’ moods over time based on their short journal entries. Users can also connect with others to share support and empathy.
Seider developed the idea after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“I knew if I could build something to incentivize me to get in the habit of tracking my mood it would be a powerful tool,” he explains.
Matthew Bambach, a graduate student from the Maryland Institute College of Art, is also seeking to empower users through his game-based anxiety app, Worry Quest.
“Providing people with personalized tools is empowering” -Jessica Crawford
“It’s fun, approachable, cathartic and symbolic, where your thoughts and emotions are becoming your shield or weapon against those demons and monsters that represent your anxiety,” Bambach says.
While Bambach’s app is still in the development phase, it’s meant to help users fight their anxiety through a series of games. Players can make notes along the way and earn rewards as encouragement to continue.
These apps come at a time when accessing mental health resources is a challenge for Canadian students. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), those aged 15-24 have the highest chance of any age group in Canada to experience mental health issues. Yet of the 17 per cent of Canadians age 15 or older that have reported needing mental health care, one-third of them have not had their needs met.
Even at Ryerson, students have reported waiting weeks to see counsellors at the Centre for Student Development and Counselling.
“Providing people with personalized tools is empowering,” Crawford says. She has been diagnosed with depression, social anxiety and panic disorders and finds that these apps are convenient when counselling appointments aren’t available for students.
Jennifer Sisson, a fourth-year kinesiology student at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, is also an avid user of the Stop, Breathe & Think app. She also uses Muse and Calm. Sisson agrees with Crawford, noting that the millennial generation is used to having information “at the click of a button or tap of a screen.”
“It is piece of mind for myself and loved ones. In the event I resort to MY3, it is the most positive decision I could make” -Jessica Crawford
This is the “accessibility and flexibility” of the apps, according to Maura O’Keefe, a counsellor at Ryerson. The apps can literally be used anywhere and any time as users need them.
For Crawford, who has experienced suicidal thoughts, this is essential.
“These things are so crucial for me. The MY3 app is a reminder/emergency tool if ever need be,” she says. MY3 is an app that acts as a safety plan, allowing users to list warning signs, coping strategies, triggers and emergency contact information.
“It is piece of mind for myself and loved ones. In the event I resort to MY3, it is the most positive decision I could make,” she says.
O’Keefe, who runs a weekly mindfulness group, recommends that students experiment with a variety of mindfulness apps as a way to complement more traditional treatment options while on the go.
While she says that apps may not fulfil the entire need of what individuals seek from therapy, she feels that more mild cases can be addressed through self-help work using an app.
“Some types of therapy are more amenable to being put on an app or online,” she explains. “For example with cognitive behavioural therapy (a goal-oriented form of psychotherapy that focuses on short-term problems), you use a lot of self-directed exercises that (people) complete on their own, like mood logs or thought records.”
The data generated by this kind of self-work offers app users a way to positively focus on mental well-being to better understand it.
“I think that as a society we should learn what the activities are that we do that have a positive or negative impact on our mental well-being,” Seider explains. “If we had better access to that information, society would be better able to allocate time to improve mental health.”
“If someone would find solace in laughing at their monster, one of their defences in the game would be to have the monster slip on a banana peel.” -Matthew Bambach
Stigma’s journal makes a “word cloud” for users that magnifies words commonly used in their entries. Analytics provide users with a detailed understanding of what’s going on in their heads and how that’s affected by each user’s environment and life. Seider says that this “hyper” awareness was something that helped him after his diagnosis.
Bambach says that the customization options that apps provide are crucial for him as well.
“The (idea of) unplugging is dependent on who you are and what situation you’re in,” he says.
Worry Quest allows users to make their own avatar, draw out their monsters as a creative manifestation of their anxieties and then pick what kind of therapy they’d like to pursue: battle, humour or soothing.
For example, if someone would find solace in laughing at their monster, one of their defences in the game would be to have the monster slip on a banana peel.
This kind of tailored user experience allows individuals to more clearly identify their struggles. Through this visualization of anxiety, Bambach intends for users to learn more precise coping mechanisms.
“The idea behind the whole quest was that it reminded me of a hero’s journey, where you’re faced with an evil challenge, where you take it on in a time of crisis and you defeat it and revel in that defeat of the monster,” Bambach explains. “I didn’t see that as all too different (from) the experience of being anxious.”
“Maybe meditation apps can be your gateway into reconnecting with yourself.” -Jennifer Sisson
O’Keefe says that the way the apps are used and what purpose they serve determines the positive or negative side- effects of remaining plugged in.
She says the idea behind mindfulness apps is to be present in the current moment.
“These apps are guiding you through present focusing activities,” O’Keefe says.
Whether it’s breathing or imagery exercises, these guided activities aim to help users be more aware of their thoughts and feelings.
Still, despite these positive effects, some say the use of apps for mental health treatment lacks a proper basis within clinical research. For example, a scholarly article in The Lancet Psychiatry by John Torous and Joseph Firth of the Harvard Medical School and University of Manchester respectively, suggested that apps provide more of a placebo effect than actual counselling.
Others have said that with the quick turnover of apps, it’s hard to evaluate them effectively over prolonged periods of time.
“Anything propounding to say that it’s a mental health service should be based in research and best practices,” O’Keefe says. Still, she admits that it depends on what the app is claiming to do. Learning breathing exercises is one thing, but intense psychotherapy is another.
But many users still report positive interactions with these apps and feel that they are better understanding themselves by connecting to them.
“Once the app is set up and the person sits down to meditate, they are learning how to check in with themselves,” Sisson says.
Sisson points out that certain apps, specifically meditation or mindfulness apps, actually trigger relaxation responses within the body. This means that for those who worry that mental health apps are providing just another way for digitally minded millennials to be over-stimulated, they’re in fact doing quite the opposite.
“In our fast-paced, goal-oriented society, it’s so important to take a deep breath and see the bigger picture,” Sisson says. “Maybe meditation apps can be your gateway into reconnecting with yourself.”