Monday, January 2, 2017

Can Apps Improve Mental Health?

            People are increasingly turning to psychiatric apps these days for all kinds of mental health issues.  Among other things, these apps help to monitor psychological symptoms, give advice and counseling, teach relaxation exercises, give cognitive behavioral therapy, and alert friends and family members in support systems when a person is having a crisis.  There are many concerns about the effectiveness of these apps, leaving aside any concerns that some people may have for the whole concept of using a kind of intimate contact with complex machines in order to improve mental health.

            In the past, there has been an article in my column about potential negative consequences of using Skype as a vehicle for obtaining psychotherapy from a therapist.  But the number of apps that create different kinds of interaction within supposed therapy situations between computers and clients has proliferated enormously.  It would be beyond the scope of this column to do a systematic review of even a few of these apps.  Such a review has been conducted often in other places and continues to be conducted on an ongoing basis.  Instead, the focus of this article will be a continuation of an ongoing general discussion about the intense interaction of humans and computers with a focus on the use of these machines for mental health issues.

            For those of you who have read this column regularly, you will know that a recurring theme has been that the continual use of computers creates sensory distortion, which, in and of itself, can lead to mental health problems.  The computer screen is an experiential vacuum, something that numbs a user as a result of its smooth frictionless empty surfaces and its intrinsic capacity to separate a user from all the activity on which he is focusing behind the screen.  At the same time, many of the digital data and images that streak across the screen create tension pockets of overstimulation.  So the computer environment is a self-contained vacuum and tension-pocket environment, alternating understimulation and overstimulation, thus creating sensory distortion and making the user alternately numb and jaded.  Independent of specific content, the computer environment by itself can create mental health issues.

            And apart from the computer as an environment, the computer as a complex behavioral entity can create problems.  Particularly with children, but also with adults, computers can begin to replace humans as sources of both mirroring and modeling for users.  The user starts to see himself through the “eyes” of the computer and, furthermore, starts to unconsciously imitate the behavior, the activity of the computer.  In the process of unconsciously imitating the behavior of the computer, the user starts to become more like a robot or more like an avatar. He unconsciously imitates the processes occurring in the computer.

            So as a medium, the computer creates such sensory distortion and such inappropriate channels for mirroring and modeling, that it stimulates pathological states of mind and pathological behavior.  This is true even as the user attempts to heal his psychological disturbances with the psychiatric apps.  And even here, many independent mental health workers are themselves not convinced of any positive effects from these apps.  The one thing that can be affirmed is that the content of these apps is so filled with defined discrete stimuli - questions, directions, and descriptions – that it may be easy to absorb it cognitively, but not necessarily so easy to absorb it on a more primitive emotional level.  It is this emotional level where absorption has to take place in order to truly heal a person’s sense of self.

            It may sound old-fashioned, but to heal from deep emotional problems, a person needs another human, a professional psychotherapist.  And preferably a therapist with whom a client can be in the same space rather than a therapist that a person communicates with over the phone or through Skype.  The therapist has to be experienced as a total sensory entity in order to be able to provide the sensory grounding that a patient needs, while he goes through the personal transformation process that is needed in order to heal.  The physical process of the therapist’s behavior is like a full affirmation of a healing reality, something to which a person can anchor while he tries to deal with his distorted feelings and thoughts.

            But people today are obsessed with apps of all kinds, so why not be obsessed with psychiatric apps as well?  The obsession to interact with apps in general is basically founded on the craving to interact with and become more like the technology that is being used today.  For more and more people, becoming more and more like a robot or more and more like an avatar is the only the way that they feel they can defend themselves against the sensory distortion that surrounds them in their living environment.  On another level, it becomes a very meaningful way they can identify with and become more like a complex behavioral entity that seems to be impervious to organic perishability and that looks like it could just go on existing forever.  But this is a false immortality, because neither a robot nor an avatar has the coherent organic consciousness or the coherent sense of self that are the hallmarks of a human feeling vibrantly alive.  What good does it do to go on existing forever (which neither a robot nor an avatar actually do anyway), if a person can’t feel vibrantly alive in his eternal existence?  Apps in general are a false road to true human immortality.

            And as long as we haven’t yet found a provable way of achieving immortality in this life, let us at least try to make these years that we do have as filled with vibrant life as we can.  And let us use these vibrant life experiences as a foundation for making and receiving good life imprints and then preserving some of our imprints to form a meaningful surrogate immortality.

            And let us use the organic healing power of good psychotherapy with a real live human therapist to help a person arrive at a state of mind where he is capable of fully experiencing and participating in a rich vibrant life.  A rich healing primary experience that leads to rich primary experiences for everyday life.  Psychiatric apps are a false road to organic human healing.  Let us use people and not machines to make us psychologically well.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

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