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How technology will improve the well-being of young adults

Today a guest post about last week’s Connect 2014 conference in Melbourne, Australia, by American researcher and sexual health educator Kris Gowen. The 2-day conference hosted by the Young & Well Cooperative Research Center brought together young people, researchers, practitioners and policymakers representing the YAWCRC’s 75+ partners in the academic, commercial, nonprofit and government sectors of Australian society.

Guest post by Kris Gowen

I was one of two Americans fortunate enough to attend Connect 2014 in Melbourne, February 20-21. The goal of the conference was to share the latest research on how technology can be used to improve the mental health of young people, often referred to at the conference as “eMental Health.” The positive framing of the intersection of youth and technology was at the forefront and drove the agenda. The fact that, out of the some 400 participants, 130 were youth strengthened the overall belief of participants that there are many ways that technology can improve – not threaten – youth well-being. Here are some key takeaways from the amazing two days:

  • eMental Health is meant to accompany – not replace – face-to-face treatments. No one was claiming that in-person visits to counselors and support groups are a thing of the past. Instead, the conference focused on how things like online chats and apps can improve face-to-face mental health treatments by providing youth with check-ins and booster sessions to keep them going in between appointments.
  • eMental Health is about making services more accessible. Although not meant to replace face-to-face mental health treatments, technology can make treatment generally more possible in a number of ways, for example:
    • The stigma of struggling with mental health issues may be a barrier to young people seeking care; eMental Health may make it easier for some to get past the stigma and explore treatment.
    • Those living in rural areas may simply not have easy access to mental health treatments. Reaching out to a chat line may be an important first step for those who lack in-person resources.
    • Many young people struggle with depression and anxiety between 11PM and 3AM – when services tend to be closed, according to research by Jane Burns, CEO of YAWCRC. Online services are more likely to be operating 24/7 and can help people when they need it most.
  • There are a lot of cool apps to help young people develop better coping skills. There are apps currently available that can help young people track their moods, improve their mental well-being through music, and teach them the basics of mindfulness to help them regulate their less healthy emotions. However, not all apps are created equal and many over-state their abilities to “cure” mental illness. That’s why researchers from Queensland University of Technology are creating the Mobile Application Rating Scale (MARS) to help rate this genre of apps for potential users.
  • Stigmatization of mental health challenges is still a big problem. Many of the young people at the conference spoke about how difficult it was to come to terms with the fact that mental health was a struggle for them. Participating in online communities, reading other people’s stories, and looking up symptoms online all helped to normalize what they were feeling and seek support. The internet helped many realize that they were not alone, that they aren’t the only ones who feel the way they do.
  • Collaboration – with youth at the center of it – will ensure eMental Health success. The fate of eMental Health does not lie in the hands of researchers, healthcare providers, or even insurance agencies, but in the ability of all these groups to come together to make things happen. And, if youth are not at the center of this movement, it will fall apart without their input. As Technology Philosopher Pete Williams stated in his keynote speech, youth “can lead the leaders” in eMental Health efforts. Because, in the end, it’s the young people who know what will work best to improve their own well-being.

As I tweeted during the conference: “Over 130 youth here! So excited to learn from them.”

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