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How Tech Can Help Fill The Gaps In Mental Health And Addiction Recovery

Written by: Will Soprano, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Will Soprano

Data reveals need for virtual peer support using proven methods of communication and app usage.

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From stigma to working-on-a-solution, mental illness is in a wildly different place today than has been in our society’s history. I believe we’re ready for technology to help. Here is a gauge of the modern problem along with a solution.

Through my experience as an alcoholic in recovery for 3.5 years, many years in therapy and working in tech for 14 years I feel I can offer some thoughts on the problem and the solution.

And so the following is written from my experiences, research, and dedication to share two things with you: people want to talk about mental health and we need virtual peer support.

We have evolved: People talk about mental health

Today I can talk to my friends and neighbors and even coworkers about how I’m feeling and managing in life. That wasn’t true 20 years ago. The doctor visits began at a young age for me, and though my family wanted to help me I didn’t feel like I could talk about what was really going on with me.

That’s changed. We can and do talk about these things with regularity; whether knowingly or not we are all talking about our feelings at a rate and consistency never seen before. I’ve spent 3.5 years in peer support groups for various mental illness, addiction recovery and personal growth topics in search of a solution to help myself and others.

I have seen over my time in recovery as an alcoholic that people want and need to talk about their feelings, mental health issues, and addiction struggles. The stigma is broken.

From books to social media and online forums for addiction and mental health awareness

What started as a tell-all of a person’s story in book form has morphed into people sharing their experiences, strength, and solutions publicly for the world to see. This invited the world in. And the world has busted through the doors, sharing still more experiences with others and joining conversations through likes, reshares, and comments online.

The data is readily available on any social network; hit your neighborhood Instagram, TikTok, or LinkedIn and you’ll find many millions talking about their struggles and successes. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight; we began at in-person peer support groups.

Groups that proved successful for millions to get sober, find solutions to their depression and anxieties. Support for diabetes, cancer, etc. was first found in chairs positioned circular to facilitate conversation. Those brave souls built doors that book authors and now social media users are busting down.

The world is already talking about their mental health. Let’s help them do it better.

Social media apps have demonstrated that their goal is not to serve your mental health in a positive way. Quite the opposite, they are proven to harm us. Designed to keep you sick through clicks, likes, and contrived images of success fuel their bottom line.

Your mental health requires something different, and needs a better platform for success. Something not designed to harm. And make no mistake about it, I believe that tech can be leveraged to make improvements in our collective wellness journeys.

Our phones are a gateway to the world, so why is that gateway leaving out the thing proven to help millions of people get well? It doesn’t have to. We are ready to push forward, make a new door for new millions of people to bust through.

The anonymity lie

Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other peer support groups are not anonymous in the way you think they are. When they refer to anonymity they mean it’s not for me to say that another person is in a group – or to promote the group as the way to get sober.

The people of these groups are not anonymous to each other. No, quite the opposite. They are friends and best friends and husbands and wives and partners of one another. They have deep and meaningful relationships and know each other intimately.

And the same goes for every post, like, comment, and share on social media. They are numbering in the millions, growing each day to make up a massive public movement of people ready to be well and seeking a solution.

Therapists and psychologists are overmatched by mental illness and addiction recovery

The crisis of mental illness is a problem sincerely misunderstood. We’ve come a long way in getting away from the stigma that once was, only to battle a more current problem of people and professionals unsure of how to help.

Therapists and Psychiatrists alike suggest peer support groups for mental illness and addiction recovery. Why? Because they work. Because the best guidance comes from a person who has walked in the shoes of the currently suffering.

The doctors can’t fix us all by themselves or all by their prescriptions. It’s proven and they’ve admitted it. A village helps a person recover in mental health and addiction.

How non-professionals help others recover and find solutions in mental health

Diagnosis and symptoms are but half the battle. Getting a person into a therapist's office, finding a therapist that works for you, and learning how to talk about our struggles emotional and mental are the other half. And that’s where peer/non professional support is the most powerful.

In those conversations between the therapy appointments and deciding which medications to take, hearing the experiences of your peers is vital. They can tell us how the medication worked (or didn’t work) for them - which type of therapy was best for them – and which things are important to share with a therapist.

How apps can facilitate peer support for mental health and addiction

Who knows addiction better than the recovered? Who knows anxiety better than a single mom struggling to pay bills? Only they know best. And only they can properly support their peers.

The dark past of all people – no matter how awful – is the very thing that can be used to help others. And there’s no replacement for it. No therapy or pill that can replicate lived experiences shared. Even better: one person’s solution might not work for another, which is why we need to hear many solutions as we seek out what works best for us.

Mental health professionals still have a place, and so do medication. But they are not the complete solution, and that’s the point. No one of these things is the solution; therapy, peer support, and medication are all required as parts to a greater whole of wellness.

Experiential sharing saves lives

Experiential sharing is the act of sharing our experiences with others. And that is exactly what we are doing in peer support groups, on social media, and in therapy, etc. We are already doing this, and we can do it better by owning the phrase and using it to help others.

When we use experiential sharing we are giving other people permission to do the same. Through this form of sharing people connect, learn about themselves and their problems, and even gain the confidence that they themselves are growing in their journey. Vulnerability connects. Helping each other one experience at a time.

Human connection and the rat experiment

Decades of scientific experiments on rats with heroin and morphine were some of the first understandings of what drugs do to our behaviors and brains in what was termed Rat Park. They found that when introduced to drugs the rats would become addicted (but you already know that). What you might not know is that they next found the very solution that doctors and patients alike agree works: Connection saves.

There were two different experiments on the rats. One where the rats were isolated and one where they lived with other rats. In the isolation cages the rats would continue on the drugs until inevitable death. But in the communal cage the rats became what we consider to be casual (weekend) users. They still functioned as a regular species.

Why? Because peer support and connection with our fellows is a vital piece in recovery and growth.

How to use technology for mental health and addiction

I believe the best way to serve this need is through virtual peer support. Experiential sharing, learning, and growing through small groups online can be done through a mental health app.

With currently accepted models of communication like the Instagram profile page, profile suggestions, office hours in tech, etc., we already know what people are willing to use. So let’s adapt these commonly used principles for peer support.

The structure: Participatory, Personal, and Integrated

We should begin by considering the goal: Quick access to peer support. To use my own experience working with people struggling with mental health and addiction I’ve found that simple, conversational, and experience driven sharing is the vehicle that works. We can further heed direction from Phatic Communication methodologies wherein we lead by asking users questions. Let them tell us what’s happening so that we can best serve them.

The three most important things that should be addressed within the application are:

  1. Virtual peer support groups, video chat baked in

  2. Types of communication: groups, breakout rooms, direct messaging

  3. Pairing users with similar backgrounds

Safeguards in an app for mental health and addiction

Physical, real-world groups have built-in safeguards that we need to replicate virtually. We’ll need to be intentional about this. First and foremost phone numbers, social media handles, and email addresses will not be public information. Secondly, by keeping all communication in groups, breakout rooms and direct messaging in-app, the users will keep their personal information safe. Phone numbers won’t need to be shared, and users won’t be able to directly message each other unless they’ve both approved of the messaging.

Once the peer support groups are formed the individual groups will need to leverage the members of the group to have still more support, like assistant moderators that help connect people to resources and reporting users that are harmful.

These types of safeguards are already being used at scale by peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Of course they’re managing all of this through a combination of Google Drive, email, Zoom, Facebook, etc. Can you imagine the time commitment from these folks? That’s how serious they are about getting well and proof that this can work even better.

The obstacles to adoption have been cleared away: people want to talk about their journey through wellness, mental health struggles, and addiction. The evidence of this is well documented; from recovery groups (there are more than 180,000 in-person AA groups worldwide) to group therapy and social media.

Accessibility to mental health services

There are large gaps in our society preventing people from getting help. There’s not an Alcoholics Anonymous group in every town, just as there’s not a psych hospital in every town. And quite frankly I’m not entirely sure that there should be. But the fact is that ⅓ of Americans live in areas lacking mental health services, whereas only 6% of Americans don’t have access to the internet.

To say nothing of the quality and cost of these facilities, beyond their lack of availability, there’s also a shortage of mental health professionals working them. Addiction rehabilitation centers are understaffed, and for every 1 therapist there are 1,676 people in the United States.

These challenges only serve to highlight the opportunity for us to better serve our community. I’m not asking that we mobilize billions of dollars, but that we find a solution. Maybe the solution has been staring us in the face the whole time, as people have continued to publicly and socially share their wellness journeys.

Why social media and current tech are miscast for mental health and addiction needs

We’ve gone over the need, the supportive data... We’ve debunked myths and looked at current day examples of real people. So what are we missing? Oh, yeah: Social networks are designed to attack dopamine receptors, virtual meeting technologies were created for professional uses, and forums for peer support are hard to find. We need a mental health app for peer support.

But desperate for a solution, people have flocked to these tools to repurpose them for their illnesses. In doing so they’re severely underserved, lacking in any formal organization or tooling designed to safely help mental illness. One of the major flaws in using social media and Zoom for mental health is that they’re not designed to keep the mental health users safe.

If we are in a wellness group on Zoom and want to talk one on one we would need to share one of three things: phone number, email address, or social media profile. And if we’re talking about mental health on social media we would need to go to Zoom to have a more in-depth non-text conversation.

People are showing us that they’ll use tech for experiential sharing, even when the apps aren’t serving their specific needs. A simple app that enables quick posting, meeting rooms with peer moderators, groups by topic, peer-led reviews of medications, etc., is needed.

People Want To Talk About Their Mental Health and Addiction. Let’s Help Them Talk

The challenge here is to be brave. It takes a lot of cows to move a herd, so to speak. The people have already spoken. And they are speaking right now; loud and publicly that they deal with depression, anxiety, BPD, ADHD, etc. Let's unite the millions of struggling under one goal: experiential sharing.

Reminder: they are already doing this

Be brave and recognize that “stigma around mental health” is a tired trope. Be brave by sharing with someone you know. And listen when they respond. Be brave by realizing that there is no quick fix, magic pill, or wellness retreat that is a cure-all.

So I don’t need to tell you that mental illness has reached a crisis point and that there is a shortage of help, understanding, and relatability. The fact is that there’s no longer a stigma amongst peers, small groups, and friends/family members. That’s been debunked. The only final place where we see a stigma around mental illness is in large groupthink.

It’s time that tech is the change it wants to see. And together we can help people across the economic, race and gender spectrum to get well. It works, we’ve proven that. Now make it accessible, safe and scalable.

Learn more about Will Soprano on LinkedIn and his personal blog.

Will Soprano Brainz Magazine

Will Soprano, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

From writer to all things dev & tech Will has spent a lifetime trying, failing, learning and growing. In nurturing his ability as a writer he found that he had a knack for supporting software developers & connecting orgs across functions. As his career arc was hitting its first peak he found himself broken physically, emotionally, and professionally. That was the beginning of his personal growth. After years of trial and error he finally realized that sobriety was the answer. With nearly 4 years sober, he's not just a new person socially but professionally as well. The mental health community and his peers professionally have responded to his willingness to serve and authenticity.



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