Technology and Mental Crisis: E-Mental Health at NHS South East and Cinema and Psychosis at The Barbican

It might feel counterintuitive that technological tools should serve as arbiters of human emotion. Plastic and aluminium may have mouldable ergonomic properties, but they can’t give you a hug at the end of a miserable afternoon.

Last week I attended two consecutive conferences that illustrated the myriad ways that humans do use technology to illustrate and augment feelings of mental distress. Cinema and Psychosis at The Barbican and E-Mental Health, Harnessing the Power of Digital at NHS South East were organised with very different agendas in mind, but in my opinion, both helped to demonstrate how technological tools have become so essential in helping to change perceptions and aid treatment of mental crisis in a rapidly developing technological world.

E-Mental Health: Harnessing the Power of Digital at NHS South East

Cynical readers might suggest that offering remote therapies and monitoring patient progress via a mobile phone app is a shortcut to saving the NHS money. I don’t doubt that E-Mental health can be cost effective and time saving, but there was plenty of anecdotal evidence on show at this event to suggest that it can also be a very effective method of helping individuals to counteract loneliness and express difficult emotions.

“they prefer to communicate with technology than with other people”

The first speaker Ali Mousa was a young mental health service user who develops E-mental health phone apps. He presented My Journey, an app that helps users to monitor their mood by asking a series of questions and recommending positive courses of action. He observed that when it comes to expressing difficult emotions young people in particular often “prefer to communicate with technology than with other people”.

As a generation of ‘digital natives’ reaches maturity it seems inevitable that mobile technologies might come to the fore in mental health recovery. A growing dependence on mechanical devices to regulate human emotion might seem a little dystopian; indeed social scientists such as Sherry Turkle have asserted this dependance might decrease quality of life for most users. Yet it is important to remember that many E-Mental Health applications simply augment rather than eliminate the intimacy of human contact.

“without people, its just a pile of stuff”

Jen Hyatt’s E-mental Health website Big White Wall allows users to access a digital community of people with mental health issues, as well as offering one to one live therapy sessions with a range of practitioners. It is a tool for instigating person-to-person interaction between individuals who may, for example, be too anxious to leave their home or seek other forms of social contact. As Jen suggested, although the technology is designed to support users remotely, “without people, its just a pile of stuff”.

“allows young people to experience the emotions of a given situation”

Translating and understanding the experiences of others is also a crucial aspect of TryLife, a new Internet based drama series for young people. In the first episode users control the decisions made by a female protagonist, potentially leading her into crisis situations such as a failed exam and even a rape. Paul Irwin Director and creator of TryLife suggests that the game “allows young people to experience the emotions of a given situation” so that they might need to experiment less with risky circumstances in their offline lives.

Cinema and Psychosis at The Barbican

The NHS using mobile phones to give remote therapy might sound like a fairly radical use of digital innovation; yet technological devices have been employed to convey the symptoms of mental distress for a long time prior to the social media age. The kinds of techniques used particularly in TryLife to aid empathy, have their origins in much older cinematic forms.

Cinema and Psychosis at the Barbican sought to provide a theoretical overview of why and how the big screen has been used so frequently by master directors such as Hitchcock and Polanski to portray experiences of mental crisis. In the first session Dr Ian Christie established the parameters for much of the discussion with a short clip from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a 1920s silent film that tells an elaborate story of persecution and fantasy from the perspective of an asylum inmate. For the viewer, the discovery that the narrator is in a mental institution only comes at the end of the film, allowing experiences of fear and persecution to be experienced as real before they are destabilised.

“Cinema is experiential so facilitates this empathetic understanding”

Dr Vaughan Bell drew on the work of Karl Jaspers, a psychiatrist who described the experience of psychotic delusion as a “fundamental change in meaning” to build on Christie’s assertions. He used examples from Rosemary’s Baby to demonstrate how small pieces of evidence from everyday life might conceivably be constructed to create elaborate delusional propositions. He emphasised that “Cinema is experiential so facilitates empathetic understanding,” allowing the viewer to inhabit the protagonists delusion as part of their own lived experience. It is the ability to trigger empathy and not accuracy that gives the cinema its power.

To close the Barbican conference we were treated to three newly commissioned films made by young people who have experienced psychosis. Adam Tivenan, Gregory Hilton and Dolly Sen all expressed a desire for their films to reflect challenges they had faced in their own lives and to contest popular misconceptions about so-called ‘madness’.

It may take time before google invents a mobile phone that can give you a proper hug, but for now it seems evident that technology will continue to be an important platform for the expression and treatment of mental ill health. As digital innovation becomes more sophisticated it makes sense that our relationship with it will become one of greater co-dependence. After all, what else do we innovate for other than to find more diverse ways of fulfilling human need?

Featured image: From the Buddy App presentation at E-Mental Health: Harnessing the Power of Digital. Photo with thanks to @claireOT