‘There are many things we need to do to create mentally healthy lives – one is switching off’

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week (10–16 May) here in the UK, our latest virtual roundtable explores the many and complicated ways technology can both help and hinder mental health and wellbeing

The panel

  • Zoe Sinclair, co-founder – This Can Happen, empowering workplace mental health
  • Alex Dyer, former psychology teacher; founder and director – Tutor House


Host: Genna Ash-Brown
Editor

The world is currently contending with more than one pandemic. Even before COVID-19, the state of the population’s mental health and wellbeing was of growing concern; a cross-generational study from November 2020, for example, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, revealed that levels of depression during lockdown stayed similar to pre-pandemic – which, it must be noted, were and still are high – while levels of anxiety have, worryingly, almost doubled. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that by 2030, there will be approximately two million more adults across the nation experiencing mental health problems, and yet, investment in mental health services is on the steep decline.

For university students, the last 12 months have been especially tough. From self-isolation to exam cancellation and fears over their future prospects, the situation among the next generation could fast become critical if we fail to acknowledge the importance of supporting and maintaining mental health. The UK higher education sector has already seen a staggering rise in cases of students tragically taking their own lives, and it’s now long been clear that, across sectors and societies, much more needs to be done. 

Technology has always been part of the mental health conversation, with parties on both sides of the fence; some of whom see it as a key contributor to the mental health epidemic, while others laude its ability to help address the situation through the provision of innovative apps and instant connectivity, as well as the enablement of anonymous interactions.

So, why is the situation so bad among UK university students in particular? How has the sharp rise in the use of technology throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns impacted the mental health crisis at large? And what is the truth – is technology more likely to help or hinder our ability to be mentally okay? Our expert panel explores…

On tech's contribution to the youth mental health crisis

“What was significant [from our research on younger people entering the workplace] was that by the time they reach 30 years old, 95% of people have been touched by mental health challenges in some way…part of that statistic was definitely brought about by tech” – Zoe Sinclair

 

“On the flip side, I think you’ve got a lot of good apps out there that are quite interesting – like Headspace or the Iceman [Wim Hof Method] app…there are lots of things you can get hold of quickly that we wouldn’t be able to without [technology]” – Alex Dyer

On mental health in the corporate space

“The corporate app space has really exploded. A lot of workplaces are investing in apps to provide staff in terms of looking after their mental health” – Zoe Sinclair

“Eighteen- to 25-year olds who were part of [our] survey, they said they had really had no education whatsoever about how they were to look after their mental health when going into the workplace” – Zoe Sinclair

“One thing that has changed, also, is that young people are now questioning what the workplaces can offer them…if you are someone who does struggle…[you can] be that young person who can research…and you would then have the courage to ask about this in your interview, for example – that has never happened before, and so it is creating competition in the workplace” – Zoe Sinclair

“A lot of bigger corporates over the years have really changed their work environment. When you look at pictures of 20-30 years ago and everyone’s in a cubicle, and you have your set time for this and that, and mental health wasn’t even spoken about, I think companies and corporations have been very good and very active in pushing [back against that]” – Alex Dyer

On the mental health challenge in schools

“I think the crux of the matter is that it is beginning at school. If we’re looking at the negatives…I think that education piece we haven’t quite overall got through yet is that some really bad things are said on social media that you wouldn’t say to someone in person. They’re hurtful and they are causing people to go into decline” – Zoe Sinclair

 

“It’s a cause and effect thing – we’re looking at a result of something rather than how we can teach kids. It’s about learning, to start with, and having that respect for others…We need to be proactive and lay down those sorts of foundations to begin with” – Alex Dyer

“We do meditation and mindfulness as part of employee packages but I feel like schools haven’t changed for 200 years on stuff like that. We’ve still got one person teaching 30 kids, let alone talking about this ongoing mental health assessment that we might have from five years old to when they leave school and go on to higher education or the workplace” – Alex Dyer

 

“Teachers are overloaded as it is. It really needs someone else external to come in and help those kids and equip them with skills like confidence because we’re just rushing [them] towards an exam rather than actually enjoying learning” –Alex Dyer

 

On mental health amid the pandemic

“There are a couple of things that rule of six created, such problems, socially, for young people that of course the government didn’t think through…but it’s something that has caused a huge amount of anxiety for a lot of young people – especially when they hadn’t been socialising for so long beforehand. Suddenly, the opportunity is there and they’re left out” – Zoe Sinclair

“Even as adults, confidence is a very fragile thing, and that’s only going to be exacerbated in young people” – Alex Dyer

On tech's ability to support anonymous reporting

“There are many different ways that workplaces are providing this for their staff. There’s a huge amount of signposting going on that there never was before” – Zoe Sinclair

“The resources out there are stretched and not everybody can wait. And I understand. If workplaces can help in some way to alleviate that and be able to offer some kind of online therapy, that’s absolutely brilliant” – Zoe Sinclair

On the future of tech and mental health

“Technology is here to stay. That’s where we are. We just have to strike that balance. I’m a strong believer in technology…but it’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK this week (10–16 May), the theme is nature and the environment, and I think that there are many things we need to take on board to create mentally healthy lives – one of them is switching off” – Zoe Sinclair

“The tech is here and we can’t beat it or change it. It’s here, but it is still quite new. We’re still learning. I can access anything right now, in a second – I think it’s that access that we like but we do need to take it with a pinch of salt to actually understand how we use it and how it can be a benefit rather than a hindrance” – Alex Dyer

 

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