Friday 19 October 2018

'Drinking is part of Irish culture - from a lack of knowing what else to do' - Irish woman (22) on mental health

Our digital natives get online help to overcome depression, anxiety and other challenges, writes Tanya Sweeney

Therapeutic: Ciara Margolis said it was a huge relief to read other people’s experiences online. Photo: Frank McGrath
Therapeutic: Ciara Margolis said it was a huge relief to read other people’s experiences online. Photo: Frank McGrath

Tanya Sweeney

It's a truth universally acknowledged that the relationship between young people and technology is complicated. Amid the headlines about selfie culture, cyberbullying and social media, a simple truism gets lost: when it comes to managing one's mental health, technology can be friend as well as foe.

Today, a conference hosted by ReachOut.com and Mental Health Reform will highlight the potential roles of technology in revolutionising mental health.

The conference is part of the eMEN project funded jointly by the HSE and the Interreg North-West Europe Programme.

The Dublin event will explore how different types of digital technology - including mobile apps and 'blended therapy' that combines face-to-face therapy with online support - can be used by people with mental health difficulties.

"People are often wary of technology, but we're getting to showcase the developments in tech that are empowering users to manage their own mental heath," explains Naoise Kavanagh, head of digital and communications with ReachOut.com, a service providing mental health support to young people in Ireland.

"We know that existing mental health services are hammered and that can be a good thing and attributed to a breakdown in stigma, but using technology differs the traditional mental health service model and gives power back to the user. Technology gives people flexibility and it meets them where they're at."

Dean O'Reilly, Psychology student DCU. Photo: Damien Eagers
Dean O'Reilly, Psychology student DCU. Photo: Damien Eagers

For many young people, accessing technology works by providing much needed information and a sense of community amid uncertain times.

Terenure native Ciara Margolis (22) admits that as a child she was "a bit of a scaredy-cat", but as she grew older, her anxiety began to worsen.

"I definitely had an existential crisis or two when I was tiny, but the Leaving Cert was the first time it became apparent that what I was experiencing was not normal. (For the exams) I was even put in a special room because I was having panic attacks."

Despite this, Ciara won a spot on her dream course, Communications at DCU. And yet her panic attacks failed to abate.

"To be honest, part of it was my lifestyle - I was just doing that college drinking thing," she admits. "It's part of the Irish culture, drinking from a lack of knowing what else to do, but I couldn't handle it as much as my friends could. I just remember it was a really confusing age and I felt kind of misunderstood."

While Ciara acknowledges that googling health symptoms can lead many down a wrong path, finding words like 'anxiety', 'panic disorder' and 'panic attacks' came as a relief. "I was reading other people's experiences and to feel like I wasn't completely crazy, or that I didn't have a heart problem was a huge relief."

Among the testimonials that Ciara found online was that of the blogging superstar Zoella, who regularly posts YouTube videos about her own mental health challenges. "People online, and then finding articles online, provided me with advice on what to do in real life," says Ciara. "What really helped me was knowing I wasn't alone. Usually, there's such a pressure to be brave and not show others your vulnerability."

It's a sentiment echoed by student Dean O'Reilly (18) who, as a young gay man growing up in Meath, felt he was lacking a sense of community.

Pesky gNATs
Pesky gNATs

"I never saw myself represented in the local area or at school," recalls Dean. "I felt I had to watch what I said or monitor how I behaved in front of certain people. It resulted in quite a bit of distress and anxiety. I think a lot of it was the general state of not really living as my authentic self, and it wasn't until I looked back that I noticed how unhappy I was."

Dean happened upon Reach Out and started to volunteer with the organisation's Youth Support Network. Through it, he came into contact both online and offline with a lot of like-minded people.

"It's not a requirement to be struggling with something but a lot of people motivated to join the Youth Support Network have had personal experience with struggle," he says. "It's funny, the decline into unhappiness was so gradual I barely noticed it, but the effects of finding a community were instantaneous."

Young people, Dean notes, are particularly vulnerable to this feeling of isolation. "It's easy to feel like no one understands you," he notes. "Even if you see that people have a certain condition, you think to yourself, 'yes, but the intricacies of this condition are different for me'."

There are many reasons why Ireland's young people feel comfortable finding the answers to their mental health questions with technology. As digital natives, they are entirely used to being themselves (or as close as it's possible to get to being themselves) online. With much of their lives happening through their smartphones or tablet, it stands to reason that they might seek help for their mental health challenges online too.

"Human connection is at the root of good mental health and we want to emphasise that these are additional tools that can facilitate good mental health," says Kavanagh. "We want to give the power back to the service user.

"We cant ignore the negative side [of technology] and people's dependence on social media," she adds. "It's having an impact that can't be ignored. We advocate for an increased sense of mental health literacy, as well as digital literacy, so that people can manage their relationship with technology better. And it's not just for young people - social media is everyone's shiny new toy and we've all been sucked in to some extent."

Ciara, meanwhile, acknowledges the measures implemented by Government to bring mental heath awareness to light, but says they "have a long way to go".

"Preventative Government programmes that can be shared online, and something like free access to yoga, art and dance classes in the area, would be great," she says. "I think the Government tends to zone in on sport as a way to address mental health issues, but not everyone is sporty."

Gaining much-needed information on her condition, as well as the realisation that she is not alone, has resulted in an instance where Ciara can now control her panic attacks if ever they arise.

"I'm definitely a lot better, but panic disorder isn't something that goes away completely," she says. "And it happened because of me being so open to the idea of getting help for myself in the first place."

The fifth annual Technology For Wellbeing International Conference takes place today at the Hilton Hotel, Charlemont Place, in Dublin. For more information, see http://ie.reachout.com/t4wb17.

The conference is part of the eMEN project funded jointly by the HSE and the Interreg North-West Europe Programme."

The future of 'eMental Health'

Already, online psychotherapy, video chat or online group therapy sessions eradicate users' concerns about time, travel or cost.

Among the new apps being showcased at the fifth annual Technology For Wellbeing International Conference is Mindwise, which is used to complement existing psychotherapy sessions.

Meanwhile, Pesky gNATs is aimed at 12 to 14-year-olds and is a therapist-led app that incorporates cognitive behavioural therapy and the Silvercloud platform, which started as a research project in Trinity College Dublin, is a programme that offers users coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety, depression, stress, illness and eating issues.

In the near future, those who want to look after their mental health will be able to do so with low-cost, wearable, mobile and personalised self-help solutions.

Irish Independent

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