The psychological treatment of mental health problems has been undergoing a fundamental change in recent years, driven by the widespread availability of digital technology, which includes computers, the internet, mobile devices such as smartphones, and mobile software applications (apps), which we often refer to as digital psychotherapy or psychological interventions, have emerged as effective ways to address mental health issues.
These interventions involve transforming psychotherapeutic treatments from manual to electronic-based, such as web or smartphone applications. While research has shown that most digital treatments are forms of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), many of these treatments have been derived from existing face-to-face treatments or self-help books based on them.
While some digital treatments are simplified versions of the original treatment and consist mainly of collections of tools, others retain both the treatment’s procedures and the strategies that govern their use.
In general, these interventions make more use of behavioural than cognitive procedures and often include a prominent educational component. Some interventions present as educational programs rather than treatments and deliver the intervention in “lessons” instead of “sessions”.
Although the interventions may differ in format and type, some retain that of the face-to-face treatment from which they were derived. For instance, they may have regular weekly sessions, which are times set aside by the patient or client to devote to the intervention in digital treatments.
Others modify the format to match how websites or apps are typically used. This often results in briefer, more frequent sessions than in face-to-face treatment, and the overall length of treatment is often shorter.
The interventions also vary in structure, as many have suggested. Some are linear, progressively leading users through the intervention step-by-step, whereas others have a variety of modules that may be used with partial or total flexibility. There may be a degree of personalisation or tailoring.
In practice, this may amount to little more than matching the text and clinical examples to the user’s demographic group. However, some interventions go further by incorporating algorithms that generate a treatment matching aspects of the user’s psychopathology.
These algorithms are either derived from the strategy inherent to the treatment or the recommendations of experienced clinicians. Ultimately, new media can facilitate psychotherapy in several ways.
New media can make therapy more affordable by offering lower-cost therapy options or sliding-scale fees, making mental health care accessible to those with limited financial resources. Additionally, digital media can help find information on free or low-cost mental health resources in our communities.
Digital psychotherapy can significantly enable individuals to receive therapy comfortably from their homes and eliminate the burdens of long-distance travel and hefty session fees.
Improves information and treatment culture
Digital media can provide a wealth of information on mental health conditions, treatment options, and coping strategies via websites, YouTube channels, podcasts, and other social media channels; this educational content can help us better understand our mental health and navigate the process of seeking therapy.
Furthermore, new media can facilitate the collection of data related to mental health trends and treatment outcomes. This information can be used to improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy and develop more targeted interventions.
Social media campaigns and online communities dedicated to mental health awareness and stigmatisation can encourage us or individuals to seek help without fear of judgement. Individuals can connect with others who have similar experiences, fostering a sense of community and support.
Further, the anonymity afforded by social media can offer a safe space for us to express ourselves and reveal our personal experiences with mental illness. In other words, it allows self-expression without the danger of stigma. It forms connections differently, watching strangers talking openly about their lives.
Digital new media has ushered in the era of teletherapy, enabling therapists to conduct sessions remotely. This breakthrough offers significant advantages for individuals residing in rural or underserved areas and those with physical disabilities or mobility limitations that make attending in-person sessions challenging. Furthermore, digital tools can be harnessed to remotely monitor a patient’s progress, facilitating timely interventions when needed.
Alternative to traditional therapy
The proliferation of mobile apps designed to support mental health has opened new avenues for individuals seeking assistance. These apps provide various features, including mood tracking, relaxation exercises, guided self-help, and crisis helplines, catering to various needs at different times. They can complement traditional therapy or serve as a valuable resource for those who may not have access to a therapist.
While artificial intelligence cannot replace human therapists, it can offer valuable assistance and resources, particularly during acute distress. Numerous online platforms and apps provide access to licensed therapists through video, phone, or text-based communication.
The influence of social media and new media on mental health extends to therapists’ practice. Therapists can explore different therapeutic approaches and have the flexibility to choose what suits them best. However, the challenge arises when patients, armed with information from social media, project fantasies onto their therapists.
Conversely, practitioners can leverage virtual and augmented reality for patients who still prefer the in-person therapy experience, creating highly sophisticated connections akin to advanced FaceTime sessions. This lets therapists reach patients in different cities, states, or countries simultaneously.
Recognising that multiple factors influence mental well-being, we can increasingly utilise diverse digital tools available around the clock. For example, one might use a sleep app to enhance sleep hygiene while simultaneously engaging with mindfulness and mood-logging apps to cultivate a positive mindset.
While each app may have a modest impact on our mental well-being, the cumulative effect of these marginal gains can significantly contribute to overall well-being.
Further, with the proliferation of fast-paced internet connectivity and mobile devices, healthcare professionals can now diagnose, treat, and monitor patients remotely, irrespective of geographic constraints. This approach offers widespread accessibility and eliminates the need for close physical proximity.