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Impact of the internet and digital resources on mental health counselling provision


With the widespread adoption of digital technologies and proliferation of internet access points such as mobile phones for fitness, sleep, professional and academic pursuits; and laptops for entertainment purposes, lives have become increasingly digitised.

An uptick in screen use, however, does have profound and long-lasting impacts on one’s mental health. Depression, anxiety, and stress are just a few of the manifestations of the impact the transition to living and sustaining our life online has had on individuals.


In such a scenario, with society still coming to grips with the spillover effects of less physical interaction and escalating commodification brought upon by the internet and other digital resources, one’s access to quality mental health services like counselling becomes all the more necessary and required.


The internet has not been all doom and gloom, however. Besides leading to exponential growth in productivity, economic income and growth, expansion of human rights such as the epochal freedom of expression and lending and sustaining various channels of creativity; amongst other utilisations, the digital medium has led to increasing access to mental health services and the provision of counselling, physical distances notwithstanding.


In-person therapy sessions and conversations have transitioned into online chat rooms and audio/visual calls for some. Resources that were once exclusive and only available within restricted, specialised knowledge spaces have now been democratised and are, for the most part, free to use from the vaults of the internet.


Such digitally-available resources are prominently in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy.

1. “In general, the interventions make more use of behavioural than cognitive procedures and often there is a prominent educational component. Indeed, some interventions present themselves as educational programmes rather than treatments, and deliver the intervention in “lessons”, not “sessions”.


2. This could, in turn, have a paternalistic effect of the resources being imparted not for empowerment but on the basis of a monetised and commercialised transaction.

Similarly, novel practices and characteristics of digital modes of psychological treatment are found in clinical diagnostics (psychopathology-specific such as suicidal thoughts), treatment formats (level of personalisation and flexibility involved in the structuring of sessions), functionalities of the prescription (progress reports, self-monitoring tools, gamified avatars, etc), and their mode of delivery (website or software applications).


3. Whereas the rate of technological progress is steadfastly growing at an exponential rate of knots, application-based learnings and use-cases of the same are teetering forward at a distinctively slower pace. Perhaps, it is the sensitivity of applications such as the provision of mental well-being that call for a more measured approach.

It could also be an instance of the more-broad-based phenomenon of mental health not being accorded due importance in lieu of the more privileged, exclusive and monopolistic ambitions of economic and technical advancement. Whatever the underlying cause, the sheer fact that this surge in mental health resources is being driven upon the back of the digital revolution means that resource allocation for inclusive and democratic mental health will always, by default, be kept on the backburner.


The same should, however, strengthen the resolve to push for a more transparent and accountable utilisation of technology for the impact it could have, and is already pioneering, in the realm of mental health treatment and empowerment. Besides drawing a larger focus upon segregated realms and impacts of mental health treatment such as functionality, treatment formats and mode of delivery, as discussed above, for a wide range of mental health conditions, and thereby catering to more numbers of individuals; rapid adoption of digitised modes of mental health treatment lends itself to be misused and misunderstood.


Regulations and professional/statutory bodies/certifications that govern mental health practice are outpaced by the rapid development of digital technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, internet-of-things and automation, to speak of a few. While there is no doubt that such applications can be hugely beneficial for populations (imagine a socially anxious individual as gaining greater confidence in their functionalities through the usage of a gamified environment under the clinical supervision of a certified practitioner), the proliferation of such software applications or persons (social media is overflowing with self-professed mental health professionals), calls into question their actual quality and impact.


This then calls for more scrutiny on not only the education and research practices that go into the making of a professionally certified mental health practitioner but also the regulation of online platforms such as Facebook that act as the launching pad for many such services. Guaranteeing the professional quality of mental health service provision will only end up benefiting the millions of those who require such aid and assistance, impacting their lives in a more empowered and individualised manner.


Establishing the credibility of a provider of mental well-being is only one issue brought about by the adoption of online platforms and technologies for the practice of mental health services. Others include legal and regulatory concerns centred around privacy and data security of clients and the extent of internet and digital coverage as well as literacy of the population.


In a country like India, where there is neither a data protection bill nor adequate and inclusive internet coverage of the population, especially for marginalised communities such as SCs/STs, such problems are the biggest barriers to democratising mental health treatment and its provision. Another focus area that gets impacted is the absence of non-verbal cues when listening to a patient over digitised mediums. These cues form the foundation to a more holistic understanding of the individual who is being heard and could impact resultant diagnoses.


Nonetheless, the digital revolution has brought with itself a new dawn for mental health services. Apart from permitting individualised and highly personalised, self-realising treatment structures, goals and plans, online mediums allow for anonymity and can be relatively more affordable as well as accessible to the common person.

As talked about above, the same calls for more focused regulation and legal and ethical considerations of mental health and its deliverance through technology. If harnessed democratically and inclusively however, the digital revolution would also have brought about a more healthier and mentally aware society.


References:


Fairburn, Christopher G, and Vikram Patel. “The impact of digital technology on psychological treatments and their dissemination.” Behaviour research and therapy vol. 88 (2017): 19-25. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2016.08.012


Fairburn, Christopher G, and Vikram Patel. “The impact of digital technology on psychological treatments and their dissemination.” Behaviour research and therapy vol. 88 (2017): 19-25. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2016.08.012


Fairburn, Christopher G, and Vikram Patel. “The impact of digital technology on psychological treatments and their dissemination.” Behaviour research and therapy vol. 88 (2017): 19-25. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2016.08.012


by- -Yash Budhwar

graphic by- Jezer Jojo



 

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