“Everyone is so engrossed ho about therapy these days. I myself was curious, but I’m not ready to pay for it. It seems like a mental health app could be a worthy stepping stone. But are they really useful?
— Attentive skeptic
When you first open Headspace, one of the most popular mental health apps, you’re greeted with an image of a blue sky – a metaphor for a calm mind – and you’re invited to take a few deep breaths. Instructions that appear in the firmament tell you exactly when to inhale, when to hold, and when to exhale, rhythms that are measured by a white progress bar, as if you’re waiting for the download to complete. This may seem relaxing to some, although I bet that for every user whose mind floats serenely in pixelated blue, there is someone else who is looking at their watch, checking their inbox, or worrying about the future – perhaps wondering about the final fate. species that must be instructed to perform the most basic and automatic biological functions.
Shortness of breath, or shortness of breath, is a common side effect of anxiety, which, along with depression, rose by a whopping 25 percent worldwide between 2020 and 2021, according to a World Health Organization report. It is no coincidence that this mental health crisis has coincided with the explosive growth of behavioral health apps. (They raised over $2.4 billion in venture capital in 2020.) And you’re certainly not alone, Mindful, in doubting the effectiveness of these products. Given the inequalities and lack of access to affordable mental health services, many question whether these digital tools are “evidence-based” and serve as an effective substitute for professional care.
However, I would argue that such apps are not meant to be an alternative to therapy, but rather a digital renewal of the self-help genre. Like the paperbacks found in the personal development sections of bookstores, such apps promise that mental health can be improved through “self-awareness” and “self-knowledge”—virtues that, like many of their kindreds (self-care, , self-knowledge). empowerment, self-service) are imposed on people in the twilight of government institutions and social safety nets.
Helping yourself is, of course, a clumsy idea from a philosophical point of view. It is one that involves splitting oneself into two entities, a helper and a beneficiary. The analytic tools these apps offer (exercise, mood, and sleep tracking) invite users to become both a scientist and a subject, taking note of their own behavioral data and looking for patterns and connections – what anxiety is related to a bad night’s sleep, for example, or what regular exercise increases satisfaction. The Mood Checker asks users to identify their feelings and comes with messages emphasizing the importance of emotional awareness. (“Recognizing how we feel helps build our resilience.”) These insights may seem simple—intuitive knowledge that people can come to without the aid of automatic cues—but if breathing exercises are any indication, these apps are designed to people who are deeply alienated from their nervous system.
Of course, despite all the focus on self-knowledge and personalized data, these apps won’t help you understand why you’re feeling anxious or depressed in the first place. This is a question that most people try to answer with therapy, and it’s worth wondering about the mental health crisis of our society as a whole. This predicament is obviously beyond my experience as an advice columnist, but I’ll leave you with a few things to think about.
Linda Stone, a researcher and former Apple and Microsoft executive, coined the term “screen apnea” to describe the tendency to hold one’s breath or breathe more shallowly when using screens. This phenomenon occurs with many digital activities (see “email apnea” and “Zoom apnea”) and can lead to sleep disturbance, low energy levels, or increased depression and anxiety. There are many theories about why prolonged use of gadgets puts the body in a state of stress – psychological stimulation, exposure to light, the looming threat of work emails and doomsday headlines – but the bottom line seems to be that digital technology induces a biological state. , which reflects the fight-or-flight response.
It’s true that many mental health apps recommend activities or “missions” that involve turning off your phone. But these tend to be tasks performed in isolation (push-ups, walks, guided meditations), and because they are performed in a way that can be noted, tracked, and included in general mental health statistics, applications end up assigning value to the usefulness of activities that should be enjoyable in and of themselves. This makes it difficult to practice those mindfulness techniques—living in the moment, letting go of vigilant self-control—that are supposed to relieve stress. In other words, by trying to instill more self-awareness, these apps end up reinforcing the disunity that many of us already feel on virtual platforms.