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Join in the conversation: How technology is transforming mental health

Kristen B. Morales

May 29, 2019

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Setting boundaries. Loving your body. Managing holiday stress.

Welcome to just a few of the weekly topics tackled in the Therapy for Black Girls podcast, which this spring celebrated two years of straightforward talk about life, love, and mental health issues.

Joy Bradford Launched by Dr. Joy Bradford (Ph.D. '06), an Atlanta-based licensed psychologist, the podcast is one digital presence she maintains. She also manages a vibrant Facebook group with more than 20,000 members and maintains an Instagram profile with more than 55,000 followers.

Bradford says these tools have a larger purpose: Breaking down barriers to mental health resources and making them accessible to a wider audience.

"Really, everything I do is aimed at reducing the stigma, helping people understand what's going on with them, to help them understand the symptoms and help them figure out how to get a therapist if they want to explore that," says Bradford, who is among a growing number of mental health professionals using new technologies to expand the reach of their profession.

This includes podcasts and downloadable meditations for one-on-one interactions; social media resources such as Tumblr, Facebook groups, Instagrammers, and YouTubers, who create communities around common themes; and new forms of therapy using digital tools, such as text help lines and telemedicine. Earlier this year, even the state of Georgia got in on the trend, launching a mobile app that offers free and confidential access to mental health services.

What was once a decidedly analog format for sharing your feelings—namely, in an office after calling to make an appointment—is now finding new generations thanks to these digital connections. As a result, an increasing number of people now view mental health as an integral part of overall health, and topics such as stress, anxiety, even learning disabilities are now part of mainstream conversation.

And College of Education alumni are part of this digital revolution.

To be clear, though, being part of a Facebook group or watching a YouTube video does not replace traditional therapy. Candice Hargons (Ph.D. '15), an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky's College of Education and a licensed psychologist, says it's important to make this distinction.

Candice Hargons "The usefulness of technology in mental health doesn't negate the value of person-to-person therapeutic interaction. Sometimes just having someone listen and reflect back on what you're experiencing without judgment is needed more than a standardized intervention," she says. "Therapists are trained in these listening skills. Most of the technology allows the person using it to receive intervention, but they are less likely to help a person reflect on their pain, experiences, relationships, or growth. That is where the benefits of face-to-face are still valuable."

Rebekah Ingram, a doctoral student in the College of Education's counseling psychology program, shares a similar sentiment.

As a client as well as a student, Ingram sees the benefits of technology from both perspectives. In her own treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder, she is familiar with bibliotherapy—when a therapist asks a client to read something in between visits, and then that reading becomes a topic of discussion the next time they meet. But as a member of the next generation of mental health professionals, she also sees the value in the array of digital tools now available.

"I use podcasts, books, Instagram, all of that as prompts to help them think about what we've talked about during the session, putting it into practice, getting other people's perspectives, and then bringing it back into session to process it together," she says. "But also, the client knows what's helpful for them; the client knows what resonates with them. So just because there's a book written by this awesome person in academia that I love doesn't mean it's going to resonate with my client."

Overall, though, Hargons says she feels new technologies allow for greater access to mental health services and interventions. For example, clients who live in rural areas can use telemedicine to access a therapist outside their area. And new generations, already growing up with changing technologies, are primed to create new technologies with therapists going forward.

Hargons says she in particular enjoys using guided meditation with her clients, and thanks to new technologies, she can upload her own on her website. She created the Black Lives Matter Meditation for Healing Racial Trauma in 2016, and the meditation found a global audience a year later when it was featured on the Huffington Post. Other posts on her blog connect with white allies, mindfulness, and self-care.

"I love the use of guided meditation to cultivate mindfulness, positive affirmation, and loving kindness—all of which improve well-being," she says. "I trained in using and developing mind-body therapy interventions, and I combined them to create the Black Lives Matter Meditation for Healing Racial Trauma as a free, easily accessible form of intervention."

Bradford's digital presence began with a blog. At the time she was commuting to downtown Atlanta for work and spending about two hours a day in her car. She began listening to podcasts and fell in love with the medium.

Today, she still has a small roster of clients, but her main focus is the podcast, as well as maintaining her social media channels. Podcasts in particular are relatively easy to get into, she says—a decent microphone and editing equipment won't break the bank. The difficult part is in the planning and uploading: You need new ideas every week, and your fans expect a new episode delivered on time.

In addition to the podcast, Bradford also goes live on Facebook and Instagram every Thursday—she calls it "Three-for-Thursday," where she shares three pieces of information related to mental health. "For example, for Valentine's Day, we talked about your self-love toolkit and what kinds of things you want to add to that kit. The week before we talked about three tips for being a better listener," she adds. "So, kind of life/mental health things. And then we just have a general conversation about what's going on with them."

For new therapists, Bradford says these types of interactions can help define your practice. The more information you give potential clients, the better the chances are of someone realizing you're a good fit for their needs.

Ingram, who plans on graduating in 2021, maintains a blog with similar goals as Bradford, but is more focused on reducing stigma among obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnoses. She has her own favorite podcasts, blogs, and Tumblr pages, but as a new clinician, she says she's still feeling her way through the many, many resources now available online. She tries to keep an eye out for resources, especially podcasts, made by licensed professionals, although she acknowledges that, with so many categories now available, sometimes a download offering personal insights can be just as effective.

"I work a lot with the trans population, and there's substantive research out there that community connection fosters resilience," she says. "So, it may not be a mental health professional on these blogs, but just having clients find that connection—'Oh my gosh, a YouTube video talking about body dysmorphia'—I think there's something to be said about clients looking for things that help them, and then we bring it back into the room and make sure that it's helpful."

On the Therapy for Black Girls website, along with a page dedicated to the podcast, there's also a consistent banner message for visitors: "Planning to start therapy soon? Get the guide to getting started!" It's all part of the goal; Bradford maintains a directory of culturally competent therapists across the country, along with information about finding a therapist. Podcast pages also include links to resources, such as books, mentioned in the episode.

Again, it's using the technology to reduce the overall stigma about mental health services.

From Bradford's experience, it's working.

"I get emails all the time from people who talk about how they hadn't thought about therapy, and since they've been listening to the podcast they've decided to give it a try. Or people will have a conversation with me on social media about things that happened in their therapist's appointment that week," says Bradford. "Somebody just shared that she found a therapist a year ago in the directory and how much her life has changed—now she's in grad school, she's recently married, and expecting. And she shared all of this on Twitter, for everyone to see.

"So, I think this generation of people, young people, are feeling more comfortable about sharing their experiences in therapy. I think it's becoming more and more a part of the general conversation."